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Rice Aims for a Diplomatic Solution to N. Korean Nukes

By Joel Brinkley

and James Brooke

The New York Times -- WASHINGTON

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in a meeting with the South Korean foreign minister on Monday, pledged to continue using diplomatic means to pressure North Korea to end its nuclear program and give up the nuclear weapons it claimed last week that it possesses.

For his part, the foreign minister, Ban Ki-moon, told Rice that his country believed North Korea might be bluffing, an administration official said. That contention was amplified in Seoul on Monday by Chung Dong-young, South Korea’s minister of unification, in a speech to the National Assembly in which he noted that the North had made similar claims at least 10 times since 2003. “We see it as a claim to own nuclear weapons, not an official statement of being a nuclear weapons state,” Chung said.

Along with the nuclear weapons announcement last week, North Korea also said it was pulling out of the six-party talks on ending its nuclear weapons program in exchange for security and economic considerations. No talks have been held since last June. North Korea wants direct negotiations with Washington, an idea the Bush administration rejects.

Richard A. Boucher, the State Department spokesman, said: “I think you will see a very active pace of discussions between the various parties to the six-party talks. We’ve already been in touch with many of the other parties through our embassies in the capital, and we’ll continue to pursue an active diplomacy aimed at making these six-party talks work.”

Boucher noted that the administration had asked Christopher R. Hill, ambassador to South Korea, to be the American representative to those talks, should they resume. The other three members are Japan, China and Russia. Diplomatic contacts among the five nations have intensified in recent days. On Saturday, Japan plans to send both its foreign and defense ministers to Washington for discussions on North Korea.

In Seoul, Chung dismissed the North’s claims as nothing more than a bargaining ploy designed to “compel the United States to change its stance.” His Unification Ministry promotes peaceful coexistence with the North and rarely voices skepticism of Pyongyang. But, Chung also heads South Korea’s National Security Council, and his comments seem to contradict a South Korean Defense White Paper issued 10 days ago.

According to that policy document, North Korea probably has assembled one or two nuclear weapons and is believed to have conducted an aerial blast test, a step that could precede an actual nuclear weapons test.

Also, analysts note, while Pyongyang has blustered about having a nuclear capability, last Thursday was the first time that North Korea publicly used the phrase nuclear weapons to refer to its nuclear program.

Minutes after Chung’s speech, a member of the conservative opposition called for his resignation.

“As all rosy predictions regarding the six-party talks and others regarding North Korea have failed, is it not right for the Unification Minister to step down?” asked Hong Jun-pyo, a leader of the Grand National Party, part of a conservative force that controlled the National Assembly for half a century until last April’s upset elections.