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Bush Proposes Aid to N. Korea In Exchange For Disarmament

By Glenn Kessler

President Bush made an overt appeal to North Korea Tuesday, offering to consider agriculture and energy aid to the desperately poor country if it dismantles its nuclear weapons programs.

The president insisted the United States wouldn’t “be blackmailed” and said he’d only contemplate assistance after North Korea took steps to end its nuclear programs. But Bush’s statement provided the clearest sign that the administration was prepared to engage in a dialogue it had once ruled out and would offer incentives to the North Korean government in return for disarmament.

For weeks, the administration has been caught in a diplomatic box of refusing to negotiate a deal with North Korea, which Bush had labeled part of an “axis of evil,” while facing pressure from its allies in the region to offer some hope to the North Korean government that its concerns will be met if it backs off from confrontation.

As tensions mounted, the administration has offered a series of contradictory and sometimes confusing statements. Last week, the administration for the first time said it was willing to talk -- but not negotiate -- with the North Koreans. Since then, various administration officials have dropped hints about how North Korea would benefit from an agreement. Chinese officials told a senior U.S. envoy Tuesday that Beijing could be used as a venue for discussions.

On Tuesday, Bush went further and suggested he was prepared to turn the clock back to before the administration’s discovery that the government in Pyongyang had a secret program to enrich uranium that could be used to manufacture nuclear weapons. North Korea admitted the clandestine project in October, prompting the current crisis.

“I had instructed our secretary of state [last summer] to approach North Korea about a ‘bold initiative,’ an initiative which would talk about energy and food, because we care deeply about the suffering of the North Korean people,” Bush told reporters at the White House. “We expect them not to develop nuclear weapons. If they so choose to do so, their choice, then I will reconsider whether or not we will start the bold initiative that I’ve talked to Secretary [Colin L.] Powell about.”

The administration hasn’t detailed exactly what was contained in the initiative, since it was never presented to the North Koreans. It would have offered unspecified incentives in exchange for addressing U.S. concerns about issues such as missile proliferation, conventional forces and human rights. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher declined to elaborate Tuesday. “I don’t want to start naming areas beyond the ones the president named,” he said.