A U.S. team headed by Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly is en route to Beijing for talks opening Wednesday with North Korea and China on the North Korean nuclear weapons program. U.S. officials say that effort must come to a verifiable end before there can be talk of upgraded relations or aid to Pyongyang.
The Beijing talks, expected to span three days, will be the highest level U.S.-North Korean contacts since last October, when authorities in Pyongyang acknowledged to Mr. Kelly that North Korea had a secret uranium enrichment program in violation of several international accords.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher says the Bush administration sees the talks as only the initial phase in a dialogue that will eventually have to be expanded to include other affected parties -- foremost among them South Korea and Japan -- if it is to yield substantive results.
He also made clear that North Korea can expect no benefits from the process, diplomatic or financial, unless it is willing to end, once-and-for-all, its drive for nuclear weapons:
"The situation created by these nuclear weapons programs has meant that North Korea has lost out on many of the benefits it could have expected from the world, lost out on many of the opportunities it could have expected, lost out on the kind of approach that we have been willing to take. The issue number one, the issue that we will be addressing, is how North Korea can correct that situation, how North Korea can verifiably and irreversibly end its nuclear weapons programs," Mr. Boucher said.
The Bush administration has said it was ready last year to offer North Korea a so-called "bold approach" of upgraded aid and recognition. But it took the proposal off the table after it became clear that Pyongyang had been violating terms of the 1994 nuclear freeze accord with the United States and other international undertakings.
Relations with Pyongyang began a downward spiral after Mr. Kelly confronted North Korean officials with evidence of the enrichment effort during his visit there last October.
The U.S. led consortium administering the 1994 "joint framework" cut off fuel oil shipments to Pyongyang, while North Korea, among other things, expelled UN inspectors and reopened its Yongbyon reactor complex.
Mr. Kelly is leading a team of State Department, White House and Pentagon officials to Beijing.
North Korea will be represented by Li Gun, director-general of the North Korean foreign ministry's American affairs bureau, while China's chief delegate will be Fu Ying, director-general of the Chinese foreign ministry's Asian affairs bureau.
China brokered the agreement for the talks and U.S. officials say that government will be a full participant in the discussions despite North Korean suggestions that China will have only a ceremonial role.
Mr. Kelly will stop in Seoul and Tokyo to brief officials there on his way back from the Chinese capital.