BEIJING — U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, on a mission to restart talks on North Korea's nuclear program, Sunday branded North Korea a "terrorist state" that shows "no respect whatsoever for human rights."
Powell arrived in China from Tokyo, where he told the news media that naval maneuvers beginning Monday off the Japanese coast and a new U.S. law intended to promote North Korean human rights were not meant as "hostile acts" against North Korea. Regarding talks to end the dispute over North Korea's efforts to develop nuclear weapons, Powell said, "We are not out of time."
But in a meeting later with Japanese reporters, Powell used his harshest language to date to describe North Korea, a communist nation that may have as many as eight nuclear weapons.
Asked about North Korea's abduction of more than a dozen Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s to serve as language teachers, Powell said, "A state did this, not terrorists. . . . A terrorist state did this." Also, noting that scores of North Koreans have fled their country in recent years, Powell said the refugees were trying to get away from poverty and a government that has "no respect whatsoever for human rights."
The Bush administration has urged North Korea to give up its nuclear program in exchange for aid from its neighbors and an eventual U.S. pledge not to attack the country. North Korea has attended three rounds of talks about its nuclear program with the United States, China, Japan, Russia and South Korea, but it is refusing to participate in a fourth round until after U.S. elections.
The crisis began in October 2002, when the North Koreans admitted having a secret program to enrich uranium, a fuel for bombs. The United States cut off fuel oil shipments provided under a 1994 agreement that was supposed to freeze the North Korean nuclear program. North Korea responded by restarting a nuclear complex that yields plutonium, a bombmaking material.
North Korea attended talks in Beijing in August 2003 and February and June of this year. But last week, it set preconditions for attending a fourth round, including discussion of newly revealed South Korean nuclear experimentation.
North Korea experts say the regime has no interest in resuming talks until after the U.S. presidential elections. They say it hopes for a better deal from Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, who favors one-on-one negotiations, or from a Bush second term. "Powell is not going with any new ideas because nothing can be modified until after the elections," says Jack Pritchard, a former State Department envoy who was involved in talks with the North Koreans. "The North Koreans have said, 'The ball's in your court. Show us why we should come.' "
The Bush administration in June offered the plan under which Japan and South Korea would provide fuel oil if North Korea gives up its nuclear program. The United States would provide a written guarantee not to attack — but only after the North Koreans have begun dismantling their nuclear infrastructure. The North Koreans demand an immediate reward for freezing nuclear activity.
"There should be some expression of seriousness" from North Korea first, Powell told reporters en route to Asia.
But Powell's latest comments could preclude new talks anytime soon.
Already on Friday, the official North Korean news agency accused the Bush administration of "becoming ever more undisguised in its hostile acts." The agency cited the new U.S. law signed by President Bush a week ago that calls for the appointment of a special U.S. envoy to press North Korea to end human rights abuses. The North Koreans also blasted the United States for holding the naval exercise off Japan.
In Beijing, Powell hopes to learn from the Chinese, who provide most of North Korea's food and fuel, North Korea's bottom line in the nuclear negotiations.