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Rice voices U.S. approval of diplomatic approach to North Korea

ANCHORAGE, Alaska—President Bush, who came into office opposed to doing deals with North Korea, markedly shifted his approach this week toward a regime that in 2002 he dubbed a member of the "axis of evil."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in a four-day trip to Asia, put the finishing touches on a multination diplomatic outreach to the isolated communist dictatorship.

Nowhere in evidence along the way was the hard-edged rhetoric that had marked Bush's policy toward North Korea and deeply unsettled U.S. allies in Asia.

Privately, some senior administration officials now describe North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il as someone who perhaps can be dealt with—if not exactly a saint.

In Seoul on Wednesday, Rice gave a robust U.S. blessing to an unprecedented offer of energy assistance that South Korea announced it's offering to revive the North's anemic economy.

She was even more effusive in remarks to reporters on her flight home, calling the offer of power from South Korea's electric grid "a major step forward."

Senior officials traveling with Rice who are involved in the diplomatic initiative said Washington has known about the South Korean offer for a month. Rice and her team have worked behind the scenes to incorporate it into a package of incentives designed to meet North Korea's security and political concerns, they said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

North Korea would get aid and normal ties with the United States if it agrees to give up its nuclear weapons.

Rice said she told leaders in China, Japan and South Korea that the Bush administration "is prepared to work as hard as possible" to get a deal with North Korea in international negotiations beginning the week of July 25.

U.S. officials say their bottom line hasn't changed: Kim's regime in Pyongyang must start eliminating its nuclear arsenal and infrastructure before it can get any rewards.

And direct high-level talks between the United States and North Korea are out of the question, at least for now.

Still, the approach Rice outlined finished an evolution from denunciation to diplomacy in the Bush administration's dealings with North Korea.

The United States in recent months has renewed a series of assurances to North Korea that it won't invade the country and that it sees it as a sovereign state.

Bush pointedly—and, aides say, deliberately—referred to the North Korean dictator as "Mr. Kim." Such signs of respect matter deeply to North Korea.

The reasons behind the change in approach aren't entirely clear.

One motivation may be urgency.

Rice acknowledged Wednesday that the North may have expanded its nuclear capability as negotiations that began in 2003 first went nowhere and then broke down for more than a year. In his first 18 months in office, Bush refused to engage with North Korea at all.

Rice herself appears to have played a major role in adapting U.S. policy.

Yet skeptics remain in the administration, particularly at the Pentagon and in Vice President Dick Cheney's office.

An unnamed Pentagon official told reporters last month that Washington might soon bring North Korea before the U.N. Security Council. Rice immediately said that wasn't Bush's policy.

And it remains far from certain that Bush's diplomatic approach to North Korea will work any more than any of the other tacks that Bush, President Clinton or the first President Bush have tried since Pyongyang's nuclear program became a major concern in the early 1990s.

Kim's motivations are impossible to read—including why he decided to return to the negotiations.

Not just nuclear weapons stand in the way of reconciliation with North Korea. The regime is among the world's worst human rights abusers, it hasn't made full amends for abducting Japanese citizens in the 1970s, and it's accused of trafficking in narcotics and other contraband to get desperately needed hard currency.

The United States is letting South Korea take the lead in reaching out to the North for now. But the energy initiative never could have happened without Washington's backing.

Indeed, after Bush was elected to the White House, one of his first foreign visitors was then-South Korean leader Kim Dae-jung. Kim came seeking America's blessing for his "sunshine policy" of outreach to North Korea, including incentives very much like those now under discussion.

The South Korean went home empty-handed and embarrassed after Bush made it clear—publicly—that he had no use for the North Korean regime.

Now, U.S. officials say they are wondering whether Kim Jong Il can be reasoned with after all.

Kim, in a meeting last month with South Korean Unification Minister Chung Dong-young, outlined his vision for the future of North Korea—one that didn't include nuclear weapons. Chung later briefed Rice and Cheney on his talks in Pyongyang.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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