Powell Rejects Calls to be 'More Flexible' on North Korea

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Secretary of State Colin Powell has rebuffed calls by some Asian partners for the U.S. to be more flexible in its approach towards North Korea, saying Washington already has a "good proposal on the table" aimed at ending the Stalinist country's nuclear programs.

Powell also made it clear that he had no plans to follow in former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's footsteps by visiting Pyongyang, noting that at the time his predecessor in the Clinton administration was doing so, the North Koreans were busy violating their nuclear pledges to the U.S.

On the last day of Powell's three-nation regional visit, his South Korean counterpart was quoted Tuesday as telling press conference, in Korean, that partners in the six-party talks "must come up with a more creative and realistic proposal so that North Korea can come to the negotiating table as soon as possible."

Earlier, China's foreign minister made a similar statement, expressing the hope that "the U.S. side would go further to adopt a flexible and practical attitude" on the North Korean issue.

The Xinhua news agency also quoted Li Zhaoxing as saying China would push for a new round of six-party talks "at the earliest date."

A fourth round of the talks - involving the U.S., North and South Korea, Japan, China and Russia - was scheduled for September, but North Korea refused to attend.

At a joint press conference with Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-Moon in Seoul, Powell said the U.S. at the last round of talks had put forward a good proposal.

It had been "modified" by the U.S., "showing flexibility in trying to accommodate the interests of the other parties."

"The way to move forward is to have the next round of six-party talks so that we can discuss that proposal and not have negotiations with ourselves at press conferences," he added.

Washington's proposal offers North Korea some concessions - "provisional" security guarantees from the U.S. and temporary energy aid from other countries such as South Korea and Japan - in return for a commitment to freeze its nuclear programs.

North Korea would have just three months to freeze its facilities.

The concessions would become permanent only once the programs were subsequently completely dismantled, in a verifiable way.

Powell said the U.S. was still awaiting a response to the plan from partners in the talks, including North Korea, and hoped to receive it at the next round of talks.

He expressed the hope that they would take place soon.

"Let's get going. We were ready in September. We were ready in October ... we hope that in the very near future the North Koreans will see that it is their interest to have the talks started again."

The six-party formula was developed at Washington's insistence, as an alternative to the direct talks Pyongyang demanded after the nuclear crisis erupted two years ago.

The U.S. said the issue was not merely a bilateral one: North Korea had contravened international commitments and its nuclear weapons ambitions threatened the region.

The crisis began when the State Department in October 2002 said North Korea had admitted carrying out a covert uranium-enrichment program, contravening an eight-year-old deal with the U.S.

Under that 1994 agreement, the Agreed Framework, North Korea undertook to freeze its nuclear efforts in return for U.S. fuel aid and the provision by the U.S. and its allies of alternative, civilian reactors for power supply purposes.

Following the late 2002 confrontation, the agreement collapsed: the U.S. and allies suspended fuel aid shipments and work on the civilian reactors; North Korea kicked out U.N. inspectors from its nuclear complex at Yongbyon, restarted a reactor mothballed under the Agreed Framework, withdrew from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and claimed to have reprocessed fuel rods which had been placed into storage under the 1994 deal.

Bush vs. Kerry on North Korea

North Korea has figured in the presidential election campaign, with Sen. John Kerry saying he would hold bilateral talks with Pyongyang, and President Bush saying the multilateral course was the right way to go.

Some Democrats have accused Bush of squandering the work done by the Clinton administration on North Korea. Albright visited Pyongyang four years ago this week, and President Clinton himself planned a visit before his term ended, but at the end of 2000 said there was insufficient time.

When the nuclear standoff began in Oct. 2002, critics blamed the development on Bush's depiction, earlier this year, of North Korea as part of an "axis of evil" along with Iran and Iraq.

The State Department said, however, that the newly-confirmed violations of the Agreed Framework had been going on for several years already.

In a Korean TV interview recorded in Seoul Tuesday, Powell was asked whether he had considered visiting the North as Albright had done, in a bid for a "breakthrough" on the nuclear issue.

He said in response that "while she [Albright] was visiting North Korea and celebrating the Agreed Framework, North Korea was hard at work trying to find another way to make a nuclear weapon through the enrichment of uranium."

Powell said he was not ready to even think about a visit.

"This is a six-party matter that has to be dealt with in the six-party framework, not [by] the American secretary of state going to Pyongyang."

Because Kim Jong-il favors direct talks with the U.S., many observers believe he chose not to attend the six-party talks scheduled for September because he is biding his time, awaiting the outcome of the U.S. election and hoping for a Kerry victory.

Giving his reasons for favoring Bush's policy on Korea, Andy Jackson, executive director of Republicans Abroad in South Korea, noted the failure of the bilateral approach during the 1990s.

"A major part of the current North Korean problem came as a result of the flawed 1994 Agreed Framework, which only served to temporarily patch over the issue of North Korea's nuclear and missile programs until it festered anew beginning in 1998, when it started to become clear that they were not going to follow the agreement," he said.

Kerry's willingness to hold direct talks with North Korea would likely produce some type of agreement, "but it would prove to be as transitory as the '94 Agreed Framework."

Jackson said the Bush administration was committed to cooperating with North-East Asian nations to reach a lasting solution to the nuclear and missile proliferation problems.

"That will require a firm hand and the strength of will not to settle for a flawed agreement just for the sake of having an agreement."

See also:
Kerry's Policies and Views on North Korea Questioned (Oct. 1, 2004)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow