WASHINGTON -- After weeks of escalating tensions, a North Korean offer relayed through former President Jimmy Carter may provide "an opening" for resolving the standoff over the isolated Communist nation's nuclear program, a senior Clinton administration official said yesterday.
"There may be an opening here" to defuse the crisis, Assistant Secretary of State Robert L. Gallucci said after Mr. Carter briefed top administration officials on his talks in North Korea last week with Kim Il Sung, the nation's aging leader. Mr.Carter brought with him an offer from North Korea to freeze its nuclear program in return for a resumption of high-level discussions with the United States.
Emerging from the meeting yesterday morning at the White House, Mr. Carter said flatly: "I personally believe the crisis is over, and I personally believe Kim Il Sung wants to be sure that the crisis is over."
Mr. Carter said that the high-level talks, which have been put on hold because of the North's refusal to allow full international inspection of its nuclear facilities, could resume shortly.
"I believe . . . we've reached complete agreement between us [the United States and North Korea] on the major issues," he said. "The next step would be to confirm this officially, and I would hope very early a third round [of direct talks] would be held."
Again, administration officials were somewhat more cautious about the prospect of resuming talks. Mr. Gallucci said the administration first has to confirm through diplomatic channels that North Korea's freeze offer meets the precise preconditions President Clinton has set for a resumption of discussions. But Mr. Gallucci said that the administration would move quickly to follow up on the opportunity Mr. Carter's visit had created.
"It may well be that President Carter had brought back something upon which we can build and defuse the situation," Mr. Gallucci said
Mr. Carter met for more than two hours at the White House with Mr. Gallucci, National Security Adviser W. Anthony Lake and other officials. During the meeting, he spoke for half an hour on the phone with Mr. Clinton at Camp David.
In an interview with CNN later yesterday afternoon, Mr. Carter said that he had initiated the trip to the Korean peninsula out of the fear that "an international confrontation [was] . . . inevitable" in the showdown prompted by U.S. fears that North Korea may have been secretly developing nuclear weapons.
Carter said that he moved to accept a long-standing offer to visit the North Koreans after Mr. Gallucci briefed him about the crisis two weeks ago. After the briefing, Mr. Carter said, he concluded that the administration had no avenue for "communication with the only person in North Korea [Kim Il Sung] who could change the course of events."
Mr. Carter said that he scheduled the trip only after receiving approval from Mr. Clinton, who was traveling in Europe to commemorate the 50th anniversary of D-Day.
While insisting in the interview that he did not mean to criticize Mr. Clinton's policies, Mr. Carter nonetheless continued to criticize the administration's efforts to secure sanctions against North Korea at the United Nations.
"I felt then and now that North Korea was not likely to [respond] tothreats or international pressure or embarrassment or condemnation -- that the alternative had to be something that would let them and us save face, to let us come out of this in a peaceful way," he said.
The United States has been been discussing an escalating series of international sanctions that would begin with a ban on the export and import of arms and an end to U.N. technical assistance and could potentially build to significant economic measures.
Mr. Carter caused a diplomatic dust-up last week in North Korea when he said the United States was willing to suspend its pursuit of sanctions while it assessed the North Korean offer of a freeze; Mr. Clinton quickly and forcefully contradicted him Friday, insisting that efforts to impose sanctions would continue until an agreement was reached.
But yesterday, after the meeting at the White House, Mr. Carter reiterated his insistence that his discussions with Mr. Kim had eliminated the need for the United States to continue pursuing sanctions. Reaffirming Mr. Clinton's Friday statement, however, administration officials again dismissed Mr. Carter's remarks.
Instead, they said they would continue to pursue sanctions until they had reached a verifiable agreement with North Korea to freeze operations at its nuclear plant in Yongbyon that could contribute to the manufacture of a nuclear weapon.
Chance of direct talks
Still, Mr. Lake, the national security adviser, acknowledged yesterday that the diplomatic effort for multilateral sanctions could be rendered moot by the growing possibility of direct negotiations with the North.
"If we can get into a third round [of talks with North Korea], the focus would shift over from the sanctions issues to the talks," Mr. Lake said. "And we would at that point suspend the effort in the [U.N.] Security Council to get sanctions."
In his CNN interview, Mr. Carter said North Korea was willing both to "freeze" its nuclear operation and allow inspectors access to spent fuel rods recently removed from the Yongbyon reactor. That is considered crucial, because such access could be invaluable in ascertaining whether North Korea had used the nuclear plant to make weapons-grade plutonium the last time it removed fuel from the reactor in 1989.
In addition to freezing its nuclear program, Mr. Carter said, North Korea is also willing to discuss: joint efforts to locate military personnel still unaccounted for after the Korean War; massive troop reductions on both sides; and a pullback of troops from the demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea.