The US will demand next week that North Korea agree to dismantle all its nuclear weapons and development programs -- including a uranium enrichment program that Pakistan is believed to have supplied in recent years -- as a prerequisite for any assistance, a Bush administration official said on Thursday.
But in a briefing on Thursday, in advance of negotiations with North Korea in Beijing next week, the administration official said he would not specify whether any commitment to dismantle the uranium enrichment program, along with other weapons programs, had to be explicit, or whether the administration would settle for a more vaguely worded commitment from North Korea to eliminate all its nuclear programs.
In an administration that is still split over how hard a line to take in the negotiations, the handling of the uranium program may determine whether the talks move forward or fail.
Confronted with intelligence gathered by the US and South Korea, North Korea admitted to US officials in October 2002 that it had an active program to enrich uranium, in addition to its much older effort to turn spent plutonium into a weapon.
But it has denied the existence of the uranium program in subsequent meetings, and US intelligence officials said on Thursday that they still could not determine where the uranium program was located.
In recent months, China, citing the failure to find weapons in Iraq, has questioned the quality of US intelligence about the North Korean program, and suggested that it should not be a focus of the negotiations that are to begin on Feb. 25. But the confession last month of Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of the Pakistani nuclear program, included an admission that he had provided nuclear technology to North Korea.
"Khan's statements have made it imperative that this program be dismantled right away," a senior administration official said on Thursday.
Echoing what was said at the briefing, but taking a more threatening posture, another senior US official charged in Japan that any failure by North Korea to acknowledge its enriched uranium program could derail the plan for settling the issue without military force.
"I think North Korea's unwillingness to discuss the uranium enrichment program could subvert President Bush's determination for a peaceful, diplomatic resolution of the North Korean issue," the official, John Bolton, undersecretary of state for nonproliferation, said in an interview with NHK, the Japanese broadcast network.
The broader objective of the talks, the official at the briefing in Washington said, would be for North Korea to make a fundamental choice to abandon its nuclear aspirations altogether, as Libya did after lengthy negotiations last year. Otherwise, he argued, there could be no deal that would permit energy or economic assistance to North Korea.
"If we don't have that fundamental choice, we probably won't have the resolution we need," said the official.
The official's comments came at a session with reporters arranged before the trip to Beijing next week by the leader of the American delegation, James Kelly, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.
Many of the comments echoed a speech by Kelly last Friday in which he said that the US delegation was "prepared to listen carefully and respond to all positions." Bush said on a trip to Asia last fall that he was willing to spell out security guarantees for North Korea as part of an overall deal.
The talks are sponsored by China and also include South Korea, Japan and Russia.
US and Asian diplomats say that the planning for the talks next week have been difficult, in part because of disagreements between the US and two partners, China and South Korea.
The negotiations have largely focused, so far, on North Korea's decades-old program to produce nuclear weapons by extracting plutonium from spent fuel from its nuclear reactors. North Korea not only has acknowledged that program, but also has boasted about it, telling American visitors last month that it has finished reprocessing 8,000 fuel rods into bomb-grade plutonium. That is enough to make about six weapons.