Chinese official to visit Washington for talks on North Korea
Nuclear claims considered 'serious'
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A senior Chinese official will visit Washington this week for talks on the nuclear standoff with North Korea that could pave the way for a three-way meeting, a senior administration official told CNN.
"We think we may have gotten some agreement on a meeting," the official said.
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Dai Bingguo will arrive in Washington Thursday and will hold talks with U.S. officials Friday, the official said.
China has urged North Korea to resume talks on resolving the nuclear crisis while leaving open the format and participants for such future talks, officials and Western diplomats said. (Full story)
Dai just returned from a four-day visit to Pyongyang, where he met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, presenting him with a letter from Chinese President Hu Jintao. Diplomatic sources told CNN the letter proposes that North Korea participate in a combination of bilateral and multilateral talks on its nuclear program.
The administration official said Dai would bring another letter from Hu to President Bush. He added that talks with Dai would center around the possibility of another three-way meeting involving North Korea, China and the United States.
On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell had what he called a "long conversation" with Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing, during which Li briefed Powell about Dai's talks in Pyongyang.
"The diplomatic track is alive and well, and I expect to see some developments along that track in the very near future," Powell said.
Officials told CNN the Bush administration has been debating whether to schedule another three-way meeting after the last round in April collapsed when North Korea insisted on a private meeting with the United States, a condition the White House refuses to meet.
"We have told the Chinese we don't see the point of another meeting," the senior official said, reiterating the U.S. preference for multi-party talks that would include Japan, South Korea and possibly Russia. "We said to convince us to have another meeting, tell us what would be different and what is possible."
Given preliminary discussions with the Chinese about Dai's visit to Pyongyang, the official said, "the odds are high that we will have another meeting."
Renewed diplomacy comes on the heels of a meeting between U.S. and North Korean officials in which North Korea told the United States it is finishing the processing of 8,000 spent fuel rods into plutonium and intends to proceed to build nuclear weapons.
U.S. officials say they are "very concerned" about the claim and while they have evidence that North Korea is reprocessing some of the spent fuel rods, they cannot say how many.
They say such claims are "serious" as Pyongyang has already made it clear it intends to make nuclear weapons.
While the Bush administration says it is evaluating the claims, one U.S. official involved in North Korea policy said "we have hard scientific data and evidence" to support the assessment that the North has begun reprocessing.
North Korea and the United States have been in a tense standoff since October, when Washington said Pyongyang admitted to having a covert nuclear weapons program, in violation of a 1994 pact.
Questions over policy
The U.S. has so far sought a diplomatic solution, which some national security experts are now calling a failure.
The most prominent among them is former Defense Secretary William Perry, who told The Washington Post he thinks North Korea and the United States may be heading toward war.
Perry told the Post in an interview published Tuesday that after speaking to several senior administration officials he was baffled by Bush's policy on North Korea.
"I'm damned if I can figure out what the policy is," he said. "My theory is the reason we don't have a policy on this, and we aren't negotiating, is the president himself."
"I think he has come to the conclusion that Kim Jong Il is evil and loathsome and it is immoral to negotiate with him," Perry told the Post.
North Korea's claim about the fuel rods is particularly troublesome, said Perry, who as former President Clinton's defense secretary directed preparations for possible airstrikes against North Korean nuclear plants in 1994.
"I have thought for some months that if the North Koreans moved toward processing [spent fuel rods], then we are on a path toward war," Perry told the Post.
But there is a clear view among some in Washington that North Korea is upping the ante to gain bargaining power to get what it wants: a non-aggression pact with the United States, as well as more oil and food aid.
"We seek a diplomatic solution, but as we move forward we will remain in close contact with South Korea, Japan, China and others to address this and find a solution," White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters Tuesday.
Since the standoff began, the administration has refused to offer North Korean leader Kim any concessions to give up his weapons because it believes that doing so would be nuclear blackmail.
Pyongyang is seeking one-on-one talks with Washington, but Bush has so far refused.
-- CNN White House Correspondent Dana Bash and State Department Producer Elise Labott contributed to this report.