RAY SUAREZ: After two days of talks with South Korean and Japanese diplomats, U.S. officials said they'd be open to discussions with North Korea.
But State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher said Pyongyang must take the first step.
RICHARD BOUCHER, State Department Spokesman: The first thing is that they have to indicate that they're willing to abandon these nuclear programs, to end these nuclear programs in a visible and verifiable manner. And we would be prepared to talk to them about that.
RAY SUAREZ: In today's statement, the three countries said the U.S. is "willing to talk" to North Korea about how Pyongyang will meets its international obligations.
And the statement expressed "serious concern" over North Korea's attempts to restart its nuclear program. The U.S. also said it has no plans to invade North Korea.
For several days, the government of South Korean President Kim Dae Jung has sought to defuse tensions by mediating between the Americans and North Koreans.
There's been public criticism of the U.S. by South Korean citizens. On New Year's Eve, tens of thousands protested the presence of 37,000 U.S. troops there. Last year, a U.S. Army vehicle accidentally killed two Korean girls. The soldiers were acquitted in military court. Today at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld denied any widespread anti-American sentiment in South Korea.
DONALD RUMSFELD, Secretary of Defense: People in a free country express themselves. You don't find that in unfree countries, but in free countries people tend to express themselves. And if you get demonstrators, a handful of demonstrators... I don't know, what is it? 10, 100, 1,000 -- whatever the number may be at any given time -- is that a good reflection of what the view of the country is? I don't think it is, myself.
RAY SUAREZ: In North Korea the government of Kim Jung Il said any sanctions by the outside world would mean war, a war that "knows no mercy." In his economic speech today, President Bush suggested he would work to avert war.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: In this case, I believe that by working with countries in the region, diplomacy will work. We have no aggressive intent, no argument with the North Korean people. We're interested in peace on the Korean Peninsula.
RAY SUAREZ: The president also said he would not let any regime threaten America or its allies.
RAY SUAREZ: For more on where things stand between the U.S. and its East Asian friends on the North Korea situation we get three perspectives. Han Park is a professor of international affairs and director of the Center for the Study of Global Issues at the University of Georgia. His latest book is North Korea, "the Politics of Unconventional Wisdom." Ming Wan is an Asian policy studies fellow at George Washington University and the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars. He was born in Beijing and is now a U.S. citizen. Mitchell Reiss was chief negotiator and general counsel at the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO), the international consortium that is implementing the 1994 agreed framework between the United States and North Korea.
Mitchell Reiss, late last week, the Bush administration was saying no talks with the North Koreans until they come back into full compliance. Today they said, no, talks with North Korea are possible.
What's the significance in that change in tone?
MITCHELL REISS: Well, I think what we're seeing is an evolution in the thinking of the administration.
From the very beginning, President Bush has said that he would like to see a diplomatic solution to this crisis. And what that really meant is at some point the United States was going to have to talk to the North Koreans.
We've been hearing in recent weeks from our allies in the region who are very much active and trying to find a way to get the United States to sit down at the table with the North Koreans.
Today's statement reflected a consensus view in Tokyo, Washington, and Seoul that the United States needs to be a little bit more forward leaning and perhaps the indication that all North Korea needs to do is to indicate a willingness to roll back and reverse its nuclear weapons ambitions might be enough for the U.S. to talk with them is a suggestion to the North Koreans that the U.S. has a little bit more flexibility than they've publicly stated in the past.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Park, while the United States was still saying it wasn't going to talk to the North Koreans, South Koreans were saying that they were on the verge of offering a new plan, a new set of proposals but then the joint declaration came out today and they weren't there. What happened?
HAN PARK: Well, no one knows but I think the official talks today and yesterday from South Korean part came from the incumbent government, and they named the president. And, I think the package or proposal that you're referring to was to be generated from the new president, the president-elect, and the transition team actually coined and created language of the new proposal, which included concessions on both parts. It did not... it was not reflected in the statement.
RAY SUAREZ: Is there a wide difference of views between the two teams, that of the current President Kim Dae Jung and the new president?
HAN PARK: Yes. The current President Kim Dae Jung has been throughout his life very close to the United States personally and politically, whereas the President-elect, Roh Moo-Hyun, has never visited the United States. He is largely nationalistic and he got elected mainly because of the support of the young people who are more nationalistic and who carry some degree of resentment toward American presence there in domination.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Wan, China is not a party to this current set of talks but I'm sure it's a very interested observer of events right now.
MING WAN: Yeah, I'm sure that somebody in Beijing is pulling an all-nighter over this -- in the next few hours in the morning meeting to discuss the important events that took place the previous night.
I believe that people sitting around the table will find plenty in a joint statement that they will like.
First, the statement indicates that the U.S. Now supports the North-South dialogue in Japan and North Korea dialogue. China supports both initiatives and wants the U.S. to engage North Korea. Second, the statement that the U.S. has no intention to invade or attack North Korea. The administration said earlier but this is a more formal commitment.
Third and more importantly, the statement says that now the U.S. is willing to talk with North Korea apparently without the pre-condition that North Korea has to dismantle its nuclear facility first. For all these reasons I believe that China will see these as a window of opportunity. They can also use this in their private conversations with North Korea.
RAY SUAREZ: In its private counsels, is the Chinese government worried about a nuclear North Korea just as much as the other regional powers?
MING WAN: China doesn't want to see a nuclear North Korea and has said say firmly in public.
In that respect, yes, and China shares much in common with the United States and other countries around North Korea. The reason is that if North Korea has nuclear weapons, Japan and South Korea may go nuclear as well, which is not in China's interest.
RAY SUAREZ: Mitchell Reiss, the one party that is very hard to talk to and very hard to take the temperature of in all of this is the North Koreans themselves. What's critical about how they respond in the next week to ten days -- both to the United Nations and to their neighbors?
MITCHELL REISS: The North Koreans can't be happy at what they're seeing taking place around the world.
Yesterday they were censured unanimously by the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. Today they saw the United States, South Korea and Japan standing shoulder to shoulder criticizing their behavior calling for them to abide by their non-proliferation commitments.
What they need to do is to reverse course on their nuclear program in the short term freeze it immediately, allow the inspectors back in, and announce where the location is of their enrichment program and dismantle it. It needs to be verified but they need to take these steps. If they do, I think the international community would be willing to sit down and discuss a broad range of issues of mutual interest with them.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Park, yesterday the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency was on this program and said that there is no time limit to its demands on North Korea.
Would it be in the North Korean government's interest right now to play out the clock and wait for a new administration to take over in Seoul, a more friendly face from South Korea?
HAN PARK: The new administration in Seoul may or may not be more friendly to the North. The new administration will be more assertive in making its policies, especially toward the United States. Kim Dae Jung has been plenty friendly in his sunshine policy.
I think North Koreans will welcome today's joint statement because the United States now expressed and changed the course actually to accept the notion of direct talks with the North Koreans. And North Koreans, as long as the agenda is open, as long as the United States is not going to use the initial meeting just to declare its position, then the chances are good.
North Koreans need to move on, because it needs a security guarantee and also it has severe economic problems.
So revival of the Kyoto arrangement is very important. I think both parties, the United States and North Korea, are prepared to negotiate. I think all these technical things -- who will concede first, that kind of thing -- should be somewhat undermined in favor of pragmatic and realistic approach toward common goal.
RAY SUAREZ: Do the Chinese really have very much influence over the current government in North Korea?
MING WAN: There is a debate over this issue. If you talk with the Chinese in Beijing they often tell you that China does not have as much leverage on North Korea as the outside world thinks.
But at the same time we know that China is the main supplier of fuel and food and politically and China has been supporting North Korea to some extent. They know that China believe that it's in China's self-interest to avoid a collapsing of North Korea. So for that reason sometimes North Korea is also playing the China card.
RAY SUAREZ: The refugees from North Korea have been crossing into China during the famine, right?
MING WAN: Right. And over a number of other issues as well - and what happens is that whenever North Korea does something aggressive, often China has to suffer the consequences. But at the same time China is in a bind. China doesn't want to see North Korea collapsing because if it collapses, that would destabilize northeast Asia and send even more refugees into China. That's why China has been providing support to North Korea of food and fuel and other things.
RAY SUAREZ: Mitchell Reiss, some of the other players sound like they're looking at this with some urgency. Is there also some pressure on the Bush administration to speak with one voice and get to a more solid place policy-wise than they've been?
MITCHELL REISS: Well, it's no surprise that there are differences in any administration when it comes to foreign policy.
In this administration, there's surprising consensus over the nature of the North Korean regime. The North Koreans are a failed state. They're a danger to the neighbors in the region. And they undermine international security by exporting ballistic missiles around the world.
The question really emerges, how do you respond to the threat that North Korea poses? Here's where you see the differences. On the one hand, you have those that believe the United States should isolate North Korea, should marginalize it, should not talk with it. On the other hand, you have those who believe it's better for the United States, for our own national security interests, if we sit down and talk with the North Koreans, if we engage with them and see if there are any concessions that we can get them to make that support our policies. At the same time, the challenge in doing that is to make sure that we don't do anything that rewards their bad behavior.
RAY SUAREZ: Does who has the upper hand inside the Bush administration have in effect some bearing... I mean, will who has the upper hand depend on what the North Koreans do in the short term?
MITHCELL REISS: Well, I think the statements today and yesterday indicate to me that the president has the upper hand, as you would expect. The president has made very clear he has no hostile intent towards North Korea, no plans to invade. The statement coming out of the State Department today said the U.S. is willing to sit down and talk with the North Koreans. We want certain things from the North Koreans, if we talk with them there's a chance we may get them.
RAY SUAREZ: And does China enter this as a full partner? Right now it's the Japanese and the South Koreans. Does China enter into a process as well and become a full player in this?
MING WAN: I believe that China has been an important player and emissaries from South Korea came to China. I'm sure the Chinese are talking to other parties involved as well.
HAN PARK: Of the countries in the region only China and Russia have diplomatic relations with both North and South Korea so it is very important for these two countries to get involved.
RAY SUAREZ: Gentlemen, thank you all for being with us.