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Bush Authorizes Negotiators To Offer Aid to North Korea

By David E. Sanger

The New York Times -- WASHINGTON

President Bush, in a significant policy shift going into talks last week with North Korea, authorized American negotiators to say the United States is prepared to take a range of steps to aid the starving nation -- from gradually easing sanctions to an eventual peace treaty, senior American officials said on Thursday. In return, North Korea would have to begin to surrender its nuclear weapons and all the facilities to develop them, the officials added.

The proposals were described to the North Koreans at the talks, which were held in Beijing last week. They constitute a major departure from the official White House statements earlier this year that North Korea would see no benefits from a new relationship until it shipped all its weapons out of the country and dismantled all of its nuclear facilities.

The administration apparently acceded to some of the the arguments from within the State Department, and from allies like South Korea, that the negotiations would break down if Washington could not describe some vision of how relations could improve.

In a brief telephone conversation on Thursday evening, Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, disputed the notion that Bush was changing tactics. She stressed that any major benefits to North Korea would come only after the the country could no longer pose a nuclear threat or rebuild its nuclear capacity.

In the past, Rice has criticized the Clinton administration’s 1994 nuclear freeze agreement with North Korea for giving the country fuel oil before it dismantled anything.

But she and other officials said that Bush was presented with a new negotiating strategy at his ranch in Texas last month, and approved the specifics after a meeting of his senior national security aides in late August.

“We’re going to give these talks a real chance,” Rice said. “This is the best opportunity for getting a resolution for a long time.” But she quickly added that “a lot depends on North Korean behavior.” This was a clear reference to its threat, delivered at the talks last week, to conduct a nuclear test, and previous threats to make its supplies of plutonium available to the highest bidder. Bush has called such comments “blackmail.”

The key change in the approach at the Beijing talks was in providing for a sequence of rewards to North Korea, according to a State Department official who briefed reporters on Thursday and other officials familiar with the talks..

Late last year, the White House publicly dismissed the notion that North Korea would see any benefits before its entire nuclear infrastructure was eliminated. But even then, a behind-the-scenes struggle was playing out between State Department officials -- who favored offering some rewards to the North Koreans for intermediate steps -- and hardliners in the Pentagon and the vice president’s office.

That struggle continues, and officials said that the parties were fully engaged in it up to the time the negotiating team, led by James Kelly, the assistant secretary of state for Asian affairs, left for Beijing last week.

But the senior State Department official said on Thursday that that “we made clear that we are not seeking to strangle North Korea,” and the negotiators said “we are willing to discuss a sequence of denuclearization measures with corresponding measures on the part of both sides.”