BEIJING - The United States pushed North Korea yesterday to abandon both its plutonium- and uranium-based nuclear weapons programs, and South Korea proposed a three-stage solution to the standoff on the first day of a new round of six-way international talks.
For more than a year, North Korea has held the world at bay through its threats to develop nuclear weapons, and there was no expectation of an immediate breakthrough at the talks.
But compared with some of the chilly rhetoric previously offered - particularly by North Korea - the tone of this meeting seemed more promising at the opening.
The head of the North Korean delegation, Kim Kye Gwan, said in a brief opening statement to the media that all parties to the meeting shared the goal of resolving the nuclear issue, "and I am confident that such political will stands as the basis for narrowing down the differences."
He said North Korea "will show flexibility while maintaining our principled positions."
James Kelly, the lead American negotiator, laid out the U.S. stance, demanding the permanent dismantling of North Korea's nuclear program in return for "security assurances" and the prospect of a full normalization of relations.
Kelly also cited President Bush's reassurance that the United States "has no intention of invading or attacking" North Korea.
The most significant part of Kelly's statement was the demand that North Korea give up all its nuclear programs, "including plutonium- and uranium-based weapons."
North Korea has put its plutonium-based program up for negotiations in return for aid and a security guarantee, but it has refused to acknowledge that it is also pursuing uranium-based weapons. The United States said North Korea acknowledged the uranium program in 2002 but later disavowed it.
Without confirmation of the uranium program's existence, and thus its inclusion in any deal, U.S. officials have indicated there is no chance of preventing a worsening of the crisis.
The makings of a potential agreement on the nuclear standoff have been in the works for months, quietly formulated through shuttle diplomacy. Already, North Korea has proposed freezing its nuclear program in return for aid and security, though this does not go far enough to satisfy the Bush administration because it could be reversed.
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.