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N. Korea Offers to Eliminate Nuke Program, Raises Hopes

By James Gerstenzang

North Korea offered in diplomatic talks last week to get rid of its nuclear weapons and even to dismantle its broader nuclear program, senior U.S. officials said Monday, but only if the United States offers “something considerable in return.”

The officials’ accounts were the first public confirmation that at the talks in Beijing, North Korea directly addressed the Bush administration’s concerns about its efforts to build nuclear weapons and talked about what it would demand to change its policies.

Although the officials suggested that the talks offered hope of some progress, the North Korean government has a long history of making proposals to ease rising tensions, then attaching unrealistic demands.

The officials said that they thought North Korea was making an opening demand and that there is a realistic prospect of further negotiations.

Reports from Seoul said the North was seeking a nonaggression treaty and normalized political and economic relations with the United States in exchange for abandoning its nuclear program and missile exports. The exports are an important source of hard currency for the impoverished Communist country.

In the past, according to Senate testimony by Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage, North Korea has insisted not only on a written guarantee of peaceful relations with the United States but on a formal treaty confirmed by the Senate -- an idea the administration has rejected.

The North Koreans are widely thought to fear a military threat from the United States, given the U.S. war against Iraq and their membership, with prewar Iraq and Iran, in what President Bush has called an “axis of evil.”

In his disclosure of the apparent progress Monday, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell also offered a strong defense of the State Department’s role in the Bush administration’s campaign to rein in North Korea’s nuclear program.

The department has clashed with hard-liners in the Pentagon who are deeply skeptical that anything can be accomplished in negotiations with the government in Pyongyang. Some at the State Department believe a series of anonymous leaks by Pentagon officials has been aimed at torpedoing any progress with North Korea.

Powell dismissed any suggestion that the State Department has withheld information from the Pentagon. This was a response to complaints from senior Defense Department officials that members of Powell’s team did not inform them that North Korea had told the State Department in March that it had begun reprocessing plutonium, a crucial step in creating a nuclear weapon.

“That’s nonsense,” Powell said of the complaints.