Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Indicting that it will push ahead with diplomatic efforts aimed at denuclearizing the Korean peninsula despite North Korea's decision to stop negotiating, the Bush administration Monday named the new head of its team at the talks.
Christopher Hill, Washington's ambassador to Seoul, will head the U.S. delegation at future rounds of six-party talks, said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.
Boucher said the announcement was not linked to North Korea's declaration last week that it had made nuclear weapons and was indefinitely suspending its participation in six-party talks.
Three rounds of the talks involving the U.S., North and South Korea, Japan, China and Russia have been held. A fourth was scheduled for last September, but North Korea refused to attend and no meeting went ahead.
Boucher did not rule out the possibility that the five parties could meet without North Korea.
Boucher said Hill, who will remain ambassador in Seoul, will lead the U.S. delegation to the next round of talks, "which we believe should occur at an early date and without preconditions."
A number of Asia experts have suggested that the five remaining members continue meeting, inviting Pyongyang but making it clear the talks will take place regardless of whether or not it turns up. Doing so would emphasize their common goal and counter North Korea's attempts to divide the parties.
Hill succeeds former assistant secretary James Kelly, the State Department negotiator whose October 2002 meeting with North Korean officials in Pyongyang sparked the ongoing nuclear standoff.
At that meeting Kelly accused his hosts of infringing a 1994 agreement with the U.S. by covertly enriching uranium. According to the State Department, the North Koreans admitted the violation.
Under the 1994 agreement, known as the Agreed Framework, North Korea agreed to freeze its nuclear programs based at Yongbyon in return for U.S. fuel aid and the provision by the U.S. and its allies of alternative, civilian reactors for power supply purposes.
Following Kelly's confrontation with the North Koreans, the Agreed Framework quickly unraveled.
Washington and its allies suspended fuel aid shipments and work on the civilian reactors. North Korea expelled U.N. inspectors from Yongbyon, 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 the U.S. insisted that it immediately and verifiably dismantle its nuclear programs.
The six-party formula was eventually worked out, and Beijing hosted three rounds. At the third, last June, the U.S. put forward a proposal that would bring North Korea some concessions - "provisional" security guarantees from the U.S. and energy aid from other countries - in return for a commitment to freeze its nuclear programs.
Those provisional measures would become permanent only once the programs were completely and verifiably dismantled, and North Korea would have three months to freeze its facilities.
Pyongyang has been dismissive of the proposal, but U.S. officials confirm that it remains "on the table."
Last week's announcements by North Korea were widely interpreted as an attempt to squeeze more concessions out of the U.S. and the other interested countries.
Boucher said Monday that the U.S. and its dialogue partners would not go along.
"This is not the moment to start changing the playbook ... the North Koreans shouldn't be rewarded for causing difficulties in the reconvening of talks."
He also predicted "a very active pace of discussions between the various parties" and active diplomacy by the U.S. "aimed at making these six-party talks work."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has spoken to her Chinese and South Korean counterparts since Saturday.
See Earlier Stories:
South Korea Urged to Send 'Firm Message' to Northern Neighbor (Feb. 14, 2005)
US Sees 'Nothing New' in North Korean Nuclear Claims (Feb. 11, 2005)
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