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N. Korea Signals Willingness to Restart Nuclear Talks

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

North Korea has signaled a willingness to resume talks about its nuclear weapons program. China's UN ambassador told reporters yesterday that he expects the talks between six nations to resume in Beijing in the next few weeks. China and the US have been pressuring North Korea to return to the negotiating table since the talks broke off in 2004. NPR's Rob Gifford joins us now from Beijing.

And, Rob, why would North Korea come back to the negotiating table now?

ROB GIFFORD reporting:

Well, the talks have been stalled for a year, and one reason they might come back to the talks is because they actually want to resolve the situation that has been stalled for so long. But I have to say, talking to analysts and diplomats in the region here, there are many who suggest that actually the North Koreans may be stalling for time. And they may just be wanting to buy some time because of some of the noises coming out of Washington recently that the Bush administration wants to refer the North Korea situation to the United Nations with the possibility of imposing some kind of sanctions. And the suggestion here is that the North Koreans may be just making some positive noises about coming back so that the US doesn't go ahead and do that.

INSKEEP: Well, that does raise the possibility of what the United States does in that instance. Is it forced then to resume these talks? What do you do if you're the US?

GIFFORD: That's the big problem, because even if the US does push this to the United Nations, if the North Koreans are stalling now and weeks or months down the road they have not come back to the talks, there's a huge problem with imposing any sanctions on North Korea. The North Korean problem really doesn't have any easy solutions because, in this case, the South Koreans and China, specifically, are not in favor of sanctions. So the Bush administration is in a very, very difficult position here in terms of which way it can go. And I think the North Koreans know that and they're trying to play on that in order to leverage their own position.

INSKEEP: Rob Gifford, now that there has been a delay of a year and the situation has developed over that time, when you talk to diplomats, do you hear any signs of a possible solution, something that diplomats could agree on if they do talk seriously?

GIFFORD: Well, I have to say no one is hugely optimistic here. The North Korean problem is really a problem that has very few good options. One thing, of course, that the United States is trying to do more and more is to lean on the Chinese and to try to get the Chinese to do more, but, of course, the Chinese don't want to do more in that they don't want to cut off the fuel and food that's going into North Korea, because they don't want to see a collapsed North Korea. In fact, they probably fear that more than they fear a nuclear North Korea, and certainly this situation has not been helped by Donald Rumsfeld's comments at the weekend at a conference in Singapore in which he was very critical of the Chinese government for its military buildup and its lack of political transparency.

INSKEEP: Rob, thanks.

GIFFORD: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: And you can find more on nuclear proliferation at npr.org. That's where NPR's Mike Shuster explains some of the limits to worldwide efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Gifford
Rob Gifford is the NPR foreign correspondent based in Shanghai.