WASHINGTON -- With Secretary of State Colin L. Powell promising a "spirit of flexibility," the United States and its negotiating partners are working on a plan to offer economic aid jointly to North Korea if it agrees to end its nuclear weapons program.
The aim would be to pump life into six-nation negotiations that have made little headway since opening in August in China. After preliminary sessions, formal talks are to resume in Beijing tomorrow.
The United States has helped North Korea with massive food shipments over the years, but it would not provide economic assistance under the proposal being prepared for the talks, a senior Bush administration official said yesterday.
Japan and South Korea would provide aid to the desperate communist government in stages if North Korea would agree to end its nuclear weapons program, said the official, who has been engaged in the so-far unsuccessful effort to overcome what US intelligence considers a major threat to the area.
The United States would join with other nations to ensure North Korea it would not be attacked.
In comments yesterday, Powell made no reference to any possible solution being drafted to present to North Korean negotiators. "We will enter these talks as we have entered previous talks: with flexibility and with an attitude of trying to resolve this problem," Powell said.
He was responding to persistent reports that China and South Korea had urged the Bush administration to ease its tough line and accept a step-by-step compensation program to entice North Korea to start a phased-in process of ending its nuclear program.
"We are not prepared to compensate North Korea somehow for not doing something that they never should have done to begin with," Richard Boucher, State Department spokesman, said.
The four countries aligned with the United States in the talks -- China, Japan, South Korea, and Russia -- share the goal of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula, Boucher said.
President Bush has indicated a willingness to negotiate with the other countries on ways to guarantee "that the North Koreans don't have to worry about their security," Boucher said.
Also, Boucher said, other nations participating alongside the United States have indicated that if the negotiations should move toward a complete and irreversible dismantling of North Korea's nuclear weapons program, they would be prepared to offer "economic benefits and other ties to North Korea."
In return for North Korea's freezing of its plutonium-based nuclear program in 1993, the Clinton administration promised 500 metric tons of heavy oil annually. Japan and South Korea helped with energy, as well. The assistance was halted after the discovery in 2002 of a uranium-based nuclear weapons program.
The current six-nation talks have made little headway, but North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, has visited China and has met with Japan's prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, in Pyongyang, North Korea's capital. North Korea also has held high-level military talks with South Korea.
Powell spoke to reporters after meeting with Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Powell did not say explicitly what he meant when he said the United States would show a "spirit of flexibility," but he might have been referring to possible security talks with North Korea.
"The other members of the six-party talks have indicated a willingness to provide some assistance rather quickly" if negotiations were productive, Powell said.
Powell said, the United States "will want to see performance on the part of the North Koreans."
"They should stop doing what they are doing," Powell said about the program.