Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Washington's point-man in diplomatic efforts to dismantle North Korea's nuclear programs is visiting the region to seek support for a firmer stance against the Stalinist regime.
Christopher Hill, the administration's new assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs, is visiting South Korea, Japan and China, three participants in six-party talks that have sought to resolve the 30-month North Korean nuclear standoff.
At the weekend, North Korea vowed to bolster its nuclear deterrent and said it would not remain passive in the face of U.S. attempts to isolate it. A day later Pyongyang said it would regard any imposition of sanctions against it as "a declaration of war."
Although the South Korean government last week repeated its opposition to referring North Korea to the U.N. Security Council -- a step that could lead to sanctions -- Hill's visit has generated signals that Seoul may be willing to take a firmer line in the effort to disarm the North.
After talks with Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon and other officials, Hill said that the two governments agreed on "the best strategy" for resolving the nuclear issue.
He did not elaborate, but the conservative Chosun Ilbo newspaper quoted an unnamed government official as saying patience with North Korea was reaching its limit.
Hill's regional visit would be used to send Pyongyang the message that "if things stay as they are, we'll have no choice but to take other, stronger diplomatic steps," the official said.
In another sign of a firmer stance from Seoul, Ban told a regional forum debate that any plan by North Korea to conduct a first nuclear test -- as media speculation suggests may be possible, given activity at potential test sites -- would further isolate Pyongyang politically and economically.
"If North Korea imprudently goes ahead with testing nuclear weapons, it would be aggravating its self-isolation, not to mention losing its guarantee for the future," Ban said in an unusually frank warning for a South Korean government representative.
The country's conservative opposition says President Roh Moo-hyun's liberal administration is too soft on the North.
Roh met briefly with Hill, and the Yonhap news agency reported Tuesday that the South Korean leader hoped to meet with President Bush in June to discuss how to resolve the crisis.
North Korea has refused to attend a six-party meeting since an inconclusive third round of talks was held in Beijing last June.
It is also strongly opposed to any move to refer its nuclear activities to the U.N. Security Council.
Speaking to reporters en route to Brazil, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice repeated the administration's commitment to the six-party talks, but also said "obviously, we reserve the right to go to the United Nations Security Council at any time concerning the North Koreans."
On Monday, the State Department played down media reports saying the U.S. was considering seeking a resolution allowing countries to intercept suspected nuclear-related shipments leaving from or arriving in North Korea.
Spokesman Adam Ereli said he was not aware of any discussions by senior officials to that effect.
Although the administration continues to stress the issue of a return to the six-party talks, it is also widely acknowledged that the previous rounds of talks achieved very little.
Speaking to reporters before his meetings in Seoul, Hill said: "What we're focusing on is the diplomatic track and the need to get the talks going and -- more importantly -- once they get going, to achieve progress."
Under the 1994 "Agreed Framework," North Korea pledged to freeze its nuclear program in return for U.S. fuel aid. The U.S. and its allies also agreed to provide alternative, civilian reactors for power supply purposes.
But the agreement began to unravel in October 2002, when the State Department said North Korea admitted it was carrying out a covert uranium-enrichment program -- a clear contravention of the Agreed Framework.
In response to the violation, the U.S. and allies suspended fuel aid shipments and work on the civilian reactors. North Korea kicked out U.N. inspectors and restarted a mothballed reactor, withdrew from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and claimed to have reprocessed fuel rods which had been placed into storage under the 1994 deal.
North Korea demanded a non-aggression pact from the U.S. as well as diplomatic and economic concessions, while Washington said it should immediately and verifiably dismantle its nuclear programs.
At the last round of six-party talks, the U.S. offered North Korea "provisional" security guarantees, along with energy aid from other countries, in exchange for a commitment to freeze the nuclear programs.
The temporary measures would become permanent only once the programs were completely and verifiably dismantled.
A fourth round of talks was scheduled for September, but North Korea refused to attend then - and since.
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