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US Dodges North Korea Nuke Morass

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U.S. dodges N. Korea nuke morass

South Korea's president-elect, Roh Moo-hyun, second from right, meets South Korean military brass in Taejon, South Korea, on Monday. While denouncing North Korea for its threats, Roh also favors engaging in talks with Pyongyang.

NBC, MSNBC AND NEWS SERVICES

UNITED NATIONS, Dec. 30 — The United States is in no rush to bring North Korea’s nuclear arms program to the attention of the U.N. Security Council for possible international sanctions, U.S. and U.N. officials said on Monday. While Washington focuses on preparing for battle with Iraq, the officials say it has urged the U.N. nuclear agency to work on a diplomatic solution with the regime in Pyongyang.

WORRIED THE North Korea crisis could swamp the Security Council at a key time in the prelude to possible military strikes on Baghdad, Washington instead wants the matter to remain in the hands of the International Atomic Energy Agency for the next month, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

U.S. officials said they were hopeful the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency could maintain the lead on North Korea throughout January, making sufficient progress without the United States and the United Nations having to take the lead.

The IAEA was already on board, U.N. officials said. They said the IAEA board of governors was expected at its meeting next Monday to say that the watchdog agency would itself pursue a diplomatic solution for now, rather than refer the matter to the 15-nation Security Council.

“This wouldn’t be for longer than a month,†one key U.N. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Washington has been barraged by criticism that it is pursuing a double standard in the Iraq and North Korea crises — bearing down on Baghdad while shunning confrontation with Pyongyang — and pressure had been building on the United States to raise North Korea’s nuclear brinkmanship in the council as early as this week.

CRISIS DEEPENS

In its latest move in a sparring match with Washington, North Korea made comments suggesting it might pull out of the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons, a move that would escalate the crisis.

“We’re closely watching what North Korea’s next step would be,†a South Korean Foreign Ministry official said, speaking on condition of anonymity at a briefing for reporters.

The treaty, which was adopted in 1968 and ratified by 187 countries, seeks to confine nuclear weapons to the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China.

At least three countries known to possess nuclear weapons — India, Pakistan and Israel — are not members of the treaty.

North Korea signed the treaty in 1985, but U.S. authorities believe the communist nation has at least one or two bombs made from 1980s-vintage plutonium.

On Friday, Pyongyang ordered two monitors from the Vienna-based U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency to leave the country and pressed on with plans to reactivate its mothballed Yongbyon facility, 55 miles north of the capital. The plant can produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. In the past week, Pyongyang had removed U.N. seals and surveillance cameras from its nuclear facilities.

The North Koreans say they need the plant to generate electricity, replacing fuel oil withheld by the United States, but U.S. officials say the amount of power that could be generated was insignificant.

Previously, the Bush administration halted the fuel oil shipments to North Korea — provided for by a 1994 agreement — after a Korean envoy reportedly admitted that the country had a secret uranium enrichment program.

U.S.: NO TO NEGOTIATIONS

While rebuffing North Korean demands for direct talks, the United States wants the showdown over the nation’s alleged nuclear weapons program to be resolved peacefully, senior U.S. officials told NBC News.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell discussed the crisis Monday with his British counterpart, part of the U.S. strategy of framing the standoff in terms of a broad international effort to contain North Korea.

Officials said the most important signal Powell is trying to send is that the United States is not seeking a military solution.

The Bush administration has ruled out a pre-emptive strike against nuclear facilities in North Korea, one senior official said, partly because the United States has no clear idea where the uranium plant is located.

However, the United States would consider military action if there was evidence that North Korea was exporting nuclear weapons.

Powell met Monday with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, a day after talking with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. Officials said Annan indicated he will support U.S. efforts to stiffen U.N. sanctions on North Korea.

Powell also made the rounds of the Sunday television talk shows, emphasizing that the United States was working with other countries to pressure North Korea into reversing its decision to restart its weapons program and expel U.N. inspectors monitoring its main nuclear complex.

Powell said the United States, while willing to communicate with North Korea, would do nothing to help Pyongyang unless it changes its behavior.

“They want a negotiation where we give them something for them to stop the bad behavior,†he said on ABC’s “This Week.†“And what we can’t do is enter into a negotiation right away where we are appeasing them for bad behavior.â€

Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly will go to South Korea next month to talk to U.S. allies — but not to North Korea “at this time,†Powell said.

After that, South Korea is expected to send an envoy to Pyongyang.

AMID CRISIS, CALLS FOR TALKS

Meantime, South Korea has become increasingly edgy about North Korea’s posturing — as well as the U.S. push to further isolate the secretive regime.

After Pyongyang’s comments on the nonproliferation treaty on Monday, the Seoul stock market plunged nearly 30 points as the North Korean nuclear crisis threatened to deepen.

Both outgoing President Kim Dae-jung and President-elect Roh Moo-hyun have called on the Bush administration not to strangle the communist state with sanctions, but instead pursue dialogue.

Seoul said Deputy Foreign Minister Lee Tae-shik was heading to Beijing later this week for talks and Vice Minister Kim Hang-kyung travels to Moscow the following week.

Kim’s office quoted the president as telling a Cabinet meeting that “pressure and isolation have never been successful with communist countries — Cuba is one example.â€

Russia aligned itself with South Korea’s approach and suggested the United States tone down its pronouncements.

“Aggressive rhetoric and threats and ... attempts to isolate North Korea can only lead to a new escalation in tension,†Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said in a statement.

Russia also denounced the expulsion of the IAEA inspectors and urged North Korea to stick to international agreements.

“Pyongyang’s decisions to expel IAEA inspectors and prepare the resumption of unmonitored work on its nuclear energy complex cannot help but provoke regret,†Ivanov said. “North Korea should strictly observe all its corresponding international obligations.â€

He urged all parties involved to keep up a dialogue and stick to a 1994 deal which promised North Korea deliveries of fuel oil and the construction of proliferation-proof reactors in exchange for Pyongyang freezing its nuclear program.

Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told NBC, “I suspect that there are going to be negotiations†of some sort.

“They may not be directly between the United States and North Korea. It could very well be through the Chinese, through the South Koreans, through the Japanese, through a combination of multilateral international community,†he said.

North Korea, for its part, also called for Washington to negotiate “face-to-face.â€

In 1993, the North said it would withdraw from the treaty during a crisis over its suspected development of nuclear weapons. The crisis was resolved a year later with the Pyongyang regime agreeing to halt its nuclear weapons development in exchange for aid from the United States and other nations.

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