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N. Korea Seeks to Reshape Nuclear Talks

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Members of the Bush administration are at odds over what to do next about North Korea. Talks remain stalled with a country that says it's a nuclear power and a top Pentagon official told reporters the impasse could be referred to the United Nations within weeks. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday that's not true.

We have a report this morning about what North Korea might want to do next. That country's leaders told a visiting American scholar they want to return to the negotiating table even though they're ordering the construction of more nuclear weapons. NPR's Mike Shuster reports.

MIKE SHUSTER reporting:

It's been a year now since the last meeting of the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons. The Bush administration has insisted since then that it is willing to provide economic incentives and security assurances if North Korea will agree to dismantle completely its nuclear weapons program. Now the North Koreans say that cannot be the sole purpose of the talks, which include China, Japan, Russia and South Korea. According to Stanford Professor John Lewis, who returned from four days in Pyongyang at the end of the May, the North Koreans want to change the agenda.

Professor JOHN LEWIS (Stanford University): The talks will be about mutual security, not about their unilateral disarmament. It's de-nuclearization of them, the de-nuclearization of us, and they gave a number of specific things that they believe are critical, that there be no nuclear-related exercises, that nuclear-capable ships and planes that come in--just deployed F-117s, for example, that they not be deployed, that the nuclear umbrella not be applied to South Korea.

SHUSTER: What the North Koreans are proposing, says Professor Lewis, is a set of arms control and disarmament talks with the goal in their words de-nuclearizing all of Korea, North and South. Only in that context will Pyongyang consider giving up its nuclear weapons.

Prof. LEWIS: The talks for mutual security would be linked to their complete and permanent dismantlement of their program.

SHUSTER: This was Lewis' 11th trip to North Korea and he also brought back some disturbing news about that program. It is assumed that North Korea may have as many as eight nuclear weapons. They intend to produce more, according to Lewis. They have removed thousands of spent nuclear fuel rods from a small reactor. Those rods contain enough plutonium to make two more weapons. They told Lewis they intend to rebuild two larger reactors which, when operational, have the capability of making enough plutonium each year for 50 nuclear bombs. They also told Lewis they have no intention of testing a nuclear weapon. They claim the US is trying to goad them into testing with recent intelligence leaks of a possible nuclear test site under preparation.

In recent weeks, the Bush administration has often repeated its preference for multilateral negotiations with North Korea. Last week at his news conference, President Bush was asked to respond to those who say diplomacy is the wrong approach.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: If diplomacy is the wrong approach, I guess that means military. That's how I view it. It's either diplomacy or military and I am for the diplomacy approach. And so for those who say that we ought to be using our military to solve the problem, I would say that while all options are on the table, we've got a ways to go to solve this diplomatically.

SHUSTER: But the North Koreans listen carefully to all of the statements coming out of the administration and they are confused, according to Lewis. In fact, last week, the North Korean Foreign Ministry called Vice President Cheney a cruel monster and blood-thirsty beast after Cheney, speaking to Larry King on CNN, said the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, is one of the world's more irresponsible leaders.

(Soundbite from "Larry King Live")

Vice President DICK CHENEY: He runs a police state. He's got one of the most heavily militarized societies in the world. The vast bulk of his population live in abject poverty and stages of malnutrition. He doesn't take care of his people at all, and he obviously wants to throw his weight around and become a nuclear power.

SHUSTER: For the past year, the North Koreans have regularly used the excuse of critical statements like these to stall their return to negotiations. In the process, they have overlooked remarks from others in the administration who say all possibilities for improved relations and economic rewards are on the table.

Two American diplomats did meet lower-level North Korean officials in mid-May in New York, and according to Professor Lewis, the North Koreans informed them of their desire to change the agenda of any future talks. Professor Lewis says the North Koreans acknowledge there are important reasons why they may eventually have to give up their nuclear weapons.

Prof. LEWIS: They understand that they'll never be able to move forward in their economic programs or be able to have normal diplomatic relations with their neighbors unless they get rid of the nuclear weapons program.

SHUSTER: Lewis says North Korea invited Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill to come to Pyongyang when he was in China earlier this spring. The US declined the invitation, Lewis was told, by both North Korean and Chinese officials. Mike Shuster, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mike Shuster
Mike Shuster is an award-winning diplomatic correspondent and roving foreign correspondent for NPR News. He is based at NPR West, in Culver City, CA. When not traveling outside the U.S., Shuster covers issues of nuclear non-proliferation and weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and the Pacific Rim.