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Bush would sign pledge on N. Korea

No-attack vow tied to steps on nuclear arms

BANGKOK -- President Bush said yesterday that he is willing to commit to a written guarantee not to attack North Korea in exchange for steps by the country toward abandoning its nuclear weapons programs.

Bush's aides said he wants to have a proposal ready for North Korea to consider by year's end, when administration officials hope to restart the six-nation nuclear talks with North Korea that began haltingly in August.

The new approach constitutes a change for a White House that had resisted offering security guarantees that North Korea might consider a concession. North Korea has openly pursued nuclear weapons despite agreeing to freeze its programs in 1994 in a deal with the Clinton administration.

Some US officials contend the country already possesses one or two nuclear weapons.

Bush ruled out the idea of a formal nonaggression treaty, which North Korea has insisted must be part of an agreement involving nuclear concessions. "We will not have a treaty," Bush said during a photo session with Thailand's prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. "That's off the table."

Bush said he would sign a security declaration if it were a joint agreement with the four other countries participating in the talks with North Korea -- China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea.

A senior administration official said Bush had ruled out a bilateral agreement on the principle that if North Korea violated a multiparty pact, "they would not only be dismissive of the United States, but they would also be dismissive of the other parties that participated in the assurance."

Although Bush aides said allies have encouraged the new approach, the immediate public reaction was restrained.

President Hu Jintao of China, sitting next to Bush after they met yesterday, said that he would continue working to promote the six-party talks process "so as to strive for a peaceful resolution of this issue."

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi of Japan and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia made public statements that touched on the North Korean talks, but did not address Bush's plan. Putin said he expects "good, positive results" if the talks continue as they are now structured and take account of North Korea's concerns.

North Korean officials have sought security guarantees since Bush labeled the country part of an "axis of evil" that included Iran and the former government of Iraq.

Bush reiterated his determination to resolve the North Korean dispute peacefully, and drew a distinction between US policy toward North Korea and the US-led invasion of Iraq.

North Korea's response to Bush's new plan is difficult to predict because it has long sought a formal treaty with the United States. The Clinton administration gave North Korea several written assurances about security, but a multinational guarantee is a new concept.

Bush discussed the possibility of a multilateral security agreement with Hu on the sidelines of an economic summit here in the capital of Thailand. Bush floated the idea with Koizumi on the way to Bangkok last week, and aides said he plans to take it up with President Roh Moo Hyun of South Korea today.

"We think there's an opportunity to move the process forward, and we're going to discuss it with our partners," Bush said as he met reporters in conjunction with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.

Bush, reiterating a position he first took in February 2002, said he has "no intention of invading North Korea." He said he has made it plain North Korea "must get rid of her weapons program . . . in a verifiable way," and added he is considering ways to restate that "on paper, with our partners' consent."

While the administration in the past has said North Korea must verifiably and irreversibly dismantle its nuclear programs before the administration responds, aides set no specific prerequisites yesterday and hinted at some type of interim agreement.

"We have to see progress before we can take steps," the senior official said. "We're not saying that everything has to be done before we will do anything. In fact, we're saying just the opposite."

The official suggested, however, that the administration would rely on "things that we can see happening on the ground, as opposed to just hollow assurances."

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said in interviews taped in Bangkok that the possibilities include a pledge that none of the countries would invade North Korea.

"We believe that there are models that can be looked at from the past that will allow us to find the kind of security agreement that would contain the assurances that North Korea should find satisfactory," Powell told CNN.

National security adviser Condoleezza Rice said on CBS's "Face the Nation" that North Korea "gains nothing from this nuclear weapons program."

"We will not be threatened by it or be made afraid as a result of this program," she said.

The administration began hinting at an openness to a security agreement on Oct. 10, when Powell told wire service reporters his staff was examining a range of security agreements issued by nations since the turn of the century. He said the research was the result of the fact the North Koreans had "shifted their language" about nonaggression pacts.

Officials said that during a meeting at Camp David the weekend before Bush left for Asia, he formally decided to take the idea to the Chinese. The White House said Bush had a similar discussion with Putin at Camp David in September.

Administration officials suggested that they expect China to take the lead in trying to convince Pyongyang that the guarantee would be an acceptable solution to the impasse. Officials said the idea had been gradually introduced to the Chinese. "If they wash their hands of it, it's not going to work," the senior official said.

Yesterday's announcement was designed to encourage North Korea to return to the six-way nuclear talks, after the North Koreans sent mixed signals about whether they should continue. It also was an effort to assure allies that the United States has ideas and is willing to engage in substantive negotiations.

Many of the US allies made it clear they were disappointed the administration did not offer a more concrete proposal at the talks in August.

The senior official said the Chinese, in particular, "have been pressing us" to come up with some form of security assurances.

China has said it wants a second round of talks by the end of the year, and the White House supports that schedule.

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