US offers North Korea 'assurance' but rules out pact

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The US hinted at new "assurances" for North Korea yesterday in an attempt to hasten a fresh round of regional talks to persuade the secretive regime in Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons programme.

President George Bush again ruled out the bilateral non-aggression pact which the North has long demanded. But he said it might be possible to address North Korean concerns "in the context of the talks" - which also embrace South Korea, Japan, China and Russia - after a meeting with China's President, Hu Jintao, before the Apec summit of Pacific Rim countries in Bangkok.

President Bush met South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun today and claimed progress was being made "on peacefully solving" a crisis with North Korea by offering Pyongyang written security assurances in exchange for a commitment to scrap its nuclear weapons programme.

Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, and Condoleezza Rice, the National Security Adviser, yesterday went on television talk shows to declare that Washington could provide "the kind of assurance that North Korea says it is looking for". The exact form of assurance has not been settled, but it could be an exchange of letters, or a written statement issued by all six participant powers, ruling out an unprovoked attack on the North. "Look at it as an agreement with a small 'a'," said one US official accompanying Mr Bush.

General Powell declared on CBS-TV's Face the Nation programme: "The six of us should be able to come up with assurances in a form they can be satisfied with." His words underscored Washington's insistence on a multilateral solution to the situation. "In return we expect North Korea to give up nuclear weapons."

Pyongyang's reaction to the US gambit was wary, complaining through the state-controlled media that an Apec summit was not the place to deal with its problems. But President Hu wants to secure a speedy resumption of the discussions which broke down in Beijing in August, and President Vladimir Putin of Russia has told the Bush administration that the North's security concerns have to be addressed.

The US shift plainly reflects the eternal tug-of-war over foreign policy between the State Department and the Pentagon, in which the latter - opposed to any concessions and keeping open the possibility of military action to eliminate the North's nuclear threat - long held the upper hand. But the setbacks in Iraq have tarnished the star of Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, and the hawkish neo-conservative faction in Washington. The White House now seems more receptive to the views of the State Department, a long-standing advocate of engagement with Pyongyang.

Any hope of progress would be dashed, however, if the North goes through with last week's threat to prove its nuclear capability, a statement which observers fear could mean carrying out a test.

US officials claim such language is mere sabre-rattling, of the type in which Pyongyang frequently indulges. But the CIA has long suspected that North Korea has fissile material - and possibly one or two nuclear bombs - from before the "Framework Agreement" between Pyongyang and Washington in 1994 which supposedly froze North Korea's plutonium-based weapons programme.

The US says the North violated that pact when it informed American negotiators last year that it was pursuing a parallel, secret effort to manufacture weapons with enriched uranium. Shortly afterwards it expelled UN inspectors and announced that it was reactivating the reprocessing plants which extracted plutonium from used fuel rods.

¿ Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, is expected to fly to Tehran within the next few days with his French and German counterparts to urge the Iranian government not to develop nuclear weapons. Iran's President Mohammad Khatami indicated last night that Tehran may halt uranium enrichment, which could be used to make atomic bombs, if it is allowed to keep its civilian atomic energy programme.

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