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Pentagon making plans if N.Korea abandons talks

Reuters | May 26, 2005
By Carol Giacomo

The Pentagon said on Thursday it was preparing for the possibility that North Korea had decided to abandon six-party nuclear talks and a top official said diplomacy with Pyongyang would soon have to produce results.

At a congressional hearing, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill and Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Richard Lawless -- the Bush administration's senior Asia experts -- kept up the pressure on Pyongyang to return to the negotiating table and promised U.S. "flexibility" if it did.

But they indicated American patience was wearing thin and the impasse could not go on forever. However, Washington is also aware that any other U.S. options for dealing with the growing nuclear problem are grim.

Hill and other officials have repeatedly said the administration would consider "other options," including military options, if the talks collapsed or if Pyongyang tested a nuclear weapon.

For nearly a year, North Korea has boycotted China-hosted six-party talks aimed at persuading the isolated communist state to abandon nuclear weapons-related activities. Other states involved are South Korea, Japan and Russia.

Despite an intense diplomatic effort to salvage the negotiations, including U.S.-North Korea talks in New York last week, Hill was not optimistic when he spoke to reporters after testifying before a U.S. House of Representatives International Relations subcommittee.

"We do not seem to have any positive response (from Pyongyang). They have not communicated anything to us in private. ... Even the press releases have not been terribly encouraging."

At the hearing, Lawless said Pyongyang may have suspended participation in the talks to gain additional rewards.

"At the same time, we are preparing ourselves for the possibility the DPRK (Democratic Republic of Korea, the North's official name) has made a strategic decision to abandon the talks," he told lawmakers.

U.S. officials said recently American intelligence had picked up signs Pyongyang might be preparing a nuclear test, but China disagreed with that assessment.

A U.S. Senate advisory group last week predicted a nuclear test could still be averted but said China must agree to join the United States and other Asian nations in a quarantine of North Korea.

Adding to tensions, the North in February declared itself to be a nuclear state and recently announced it had removed fuel rods from its Yongbyon nuclear reactor, a potential precursor to building additional bombs beyond the eight U.S. officials estimate already exist.

Also, the Pentagon on Wednesday suspended a nine-year-old project inside North Korea to find remains of American troops killed during the 1950-53 Korean War, accusing Pyongyang of creating an atmosphere dangerous to U.S. workers.

Reaffirming his warnings that unproductive diplomacy cannot go on indefinitely, Hill said: "We have to start achieving results soon. I don't want to put a deadline but clearly this can't go on forever."

Under congressional pressure to reconsider its insistence on only holding bilateral talks with the North within the six-party format, Hill agreed the United States "cannot appear to be stubborn" and must be "results oriented."

He promised if negotiations resume, "we will be very flexible" in the six-party process and he would be prepared to meet the North Koreans, as his predecessor had done.

U.S. officials previously have had bilateral meetings with the North Koreans in the context of six-party negotiations but these sessions have been limited.

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