WASHINGTON – The top U.S. envoy at stalled North Korean disarmament talks said Thursday that the United States wants to meet with South Korea, Japan, Russia and China next week to figure out a way to persuade North Korea to return to negotiations.
"The purpose is to chart the way forward," Assistant Secretary of State Chris Hill said after a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. "We'd like to be ready and move ahead."
The North has boycotted the six-nation talks on its self-announced nuclear weapons production program since November. Two weeks ago, Pyongyang test-fired seven missiles, an act of defiance seen as an attempt to put itself on top of the world's agenda. But the reclusive, communist-led country has been largely brushed aside by recent violence in the Middle East, as Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas continue to clash.
Hill told reporters that the goal was to include North Korea at the five-nation gathering on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' annual meeting of foreign ministers in Malaysia. But, he added, "the North Koreans don't seem to want to go to six-party meetings right now."
The five-party talks, Hill said, could also include other nations in the region and could focus on additional security arrangements in Northeast Asia.
Hill also told reporters that he could not confirm reports that Iranian officials had witnessed the July 4 launches. He said he misspoke when he earlier told lawmakers that he could confirm the reports.
Later, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack also said he could not confirm the reports. But asked about the possibility that North Korea was trying to market its weapons, he said that "with respect to weapons, anything that isn't bolted down, they're ready to sell. I think we've seen that. So the bazaar is open. Whether or not they were trying to show how good their wares are, I don't know."
During the hearing, Hill testified that the United States would have no problem with one-on-one contact with Pyongyang on the sidelines of six-nation negotiations.
But, he said, the Bush administration is not prepared to "torpedo" multination talks in order to meet separately with the North.
Hill resisted "a situation where the U.S. tries to handle this" one-on-one with Pyongyang, leaving out North Korea's neighbors. The North wants direct negotiations with Washington, something U.S. officials have consistently refused outside of the formal six-party process.
"The problem is not a lack of communication; the problem is that they don't want to" return to the negotiations, Hill said.
Since the missile launches, which included one missile that could potentially reach parts of the United States, little headway has been made toward getting the North to return to the nuclear talks. North Korea has refused to return to talks because of U.S. sanctions for alleged counterfeiting and money laundering.
On Saturday, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution criticizing the North's missile tests and banning all U.N. member states from trading with Pyongyang in missile-related technology. The North rejected the resolution, warning of further repercussions.
Hill said the United States must now use the resolution as "a very strong sign of international resolve" and work with the other nations to press North Korea to return to talks.
He acknowledged, however, a level of frustration at the deadlock.
"What I need is for the North Koreans to show they're serious," Hill said. "My problem is the North Koreans have given me nothing to work with."
Committee chairman Richard Lugar said he hoped the launches could spur China toward taking a stronger position against North Korea that could bolster efforts to lure the North back to the talks.
Lugar said that continuing North Korean provocation could lead to Japan, the United States and other nations strengthening their militaries in East Asia, which China would consider a major impediment to continuing its booming trade in the region.
China is North Korea's major ally, supplying energy and food to its neighbor. Beijing has been seen by some as tentative on confronting Pyongyang because of worries that a collapsed North Korea would lead to a flood of refugees streaming into more prosperous China.
Hill said China, which had pressed the North not to test fire, was "not at all happy at how the North Koreans had defied them."
He said Beijing might also be worried that allowing the North to pursue its weapons program could push Japan and South Korea to pursue nuclear weapons.