U.S. will be 'a little bit stubborn' on Korea talks, official tells panel

Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday criticized the Bush administration’s policy on North Korea, calling it ambiguous and ineffective.

The criticism centered on the administration’s failure to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table to discuss its nuclear-weapons program.

It has been a year since the last round of the so-called six-party talks, including the United States, China, Japan, Russia and the two Koreas, ended inconclusively in Beijing. In February, North Korea announced publicly for the first time that it has nuclear weapons.

Members of the committee voiced displeasure with what they described as mixed signals being sent by the White House, reflecting an internal divide in the administration regarding whether disarmament or regime change should be the ultimate aim of U.S. policy.

The questioning of President Bush’s strategy on North Korea comes at a time when Americans are growing more skeptical of U.S. involvement in Iraq.

In his opening remarks, committee Chairman Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) noted that although “there may be a need for some ambiguity in U.S. policy toward North Korea, it is not evident that this ambiguity has been constructive or even intentional.” Lugar questioned whether it was realistic to expect the North Koreans to return to negotiations if U.S. policy is geared toward regime change.

Sen. Joseph Biden (Del.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, was more critical, describing U.S. policy toward North Korea as “disastrous” and suggesting that the administration’s failure to formulate a coherent policy was largely to blame for stalling the talks.

Biden said the administration has yet to decide whether it is willing to accept the long-term stability of a regime hostile to human rights and supportive of terrorism as a price of achieving a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. Biden voiced sympathy for those who are repulsed by North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il’s regime but urged the administration to make the elimination of nuclear weapons its overriding priority.

“If everything is equally important to you, nothing is important to you,” he said.

Christopher Hill, the assistant secretary of state for East Asia, defended the administration’s policy, arguing that the delay in talks stems from North Korea’s unwillingness to abandon its nuclear ambitions. Hill emphasized that the administration is prepared to give Pyongyang the security guarantees and economic assistance it wants but that no progress could be made until Kim Jong-Il makes the fundamental decision to give up his weapons program.

Hill characterized Pyongyang’s reluctance to come to the table as posing “great peril” to the regime because “one way or the other, they’re not going to get these weapons.”

He said that the administration believes that international pressure is mounting on North Korea to return to negotiations soon.

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) responded: “So are we just going to wait?”

A number of committee members, including Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), a frequent critic of Bush’s foreign policy, grilled Hill about why the United States insisted on the six-nation format, rather than holding the bilateral negotiations Pyongyang has asked for.

Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) noted that several American officials, including Jack Pritchard, former chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea, have cited U.S. reluctance to engage in bilateral talks as a major obstacle to progress in negotiations.

Hill, along with Ambassador Joseph DeTrani, U.S. envoy to the six-party talks, said the administration strongly believes the six-party format is the correct one, since China is North Korea’s largest trading partner and the other countries have strong security interests in the outcome of the talks. “We’re going to be a little bit stubborn on this,” Hill said.

DeTrani said that American negotiators have engaged in one-on-one discussions with North Korean officials but those discussions have not been productive.

The open hearing was described as an opportunity for the public to learn more about the progress of negotiations. Lugar said that he and other committee members had been meeting with Hill privately.

Earlier this year, a bipartisan delegation of six House members who met with North Korean President Yong Nam Kim in January urged North Korea to reverse its decision to abandon the six-nation negotiations.

The delegation, led by Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), vice chairman of the Armed Services Committee, expressed its concerns in a Feb. 10 letter to Kim.