Seoul, South Korea In a sign of South Korea's growing sway over U.S. policy on the Korean Peninsula, Secretary of State Colin Powell said Saturday that the United States would be open to direct talks with North Korea, without preconditions, sometime in the future.
The Bush administration, at least publicly, had balked at direct negotiations until now unless Pyongyang first ended its efforts to develop nuclear weapons. Seoul had pressed for direct talks without preconditions. A South Korean delegation is due to head to Pyongyang next week.
Seoul's central role in addressing the North Korean nuclear crisis illustrates the country's spunky new willingness to assert its own independent policy, after a 50-year security partnership with the United States in which it loyally toed America's line.
The divergence may make it more difficult to persuade North Korea to curb its nuclear weapons program, however. The split also is undermining support for the United States in South Korea.
"We used to be perceived as part of the solution to the North Korea problem," Stephen Bosworth, U.S. Ambassador to Seoul in the Clinton administration said in an interview here. "Now we are being perceived as part of the problem."
Analysts agree that the gap between the two allies is almost certain to widen when progressive labor attorney Roh Moo-hyun, a pragmatic politician who speaks no English and has never even visited the United States, becomes South Korea's next president in a month.
In addition to Powell's new and softer approach toward North Korea, Seoul has shown remarkable influence elsewhere in the nuclear crisis, which began after Pyongyang admitted it had concealed a program to produce highly-enriched uranium, then walked out of a global treaty to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. North Korea has since made the first moves to reopen a mothballed nuclear plant capable of producing plutonium and could theoretically be producing weapons-grade material in weeks.
On Friday, South Korea, in addition to announcing that it would send an envoy to North Korea, indicated it favored delay of a U.N. Security Council meeting next month. Seoul is convinced the session's only purpose would be to levy political or economic sanctions against Pyongyang for violating its pledge not to develop nuclear weapons.
Then on Saturday, the South Korean government went a step further, asking the International Atomic Energy Agency to postpone its planned Feb. 3 meeting to discuss North Korea's treaty violations. Until the agency meets and refers the matter to the Security Council, the United Nations has no basis for intervening.
The point of the later date is "to better reflect the outcome of talks by our envoy to the North," said Cheon Young-woo, a director at the South Korean Foreign Ministry.
Secretary of State Powell, en route to meetings in Davos, Switzerland, Saturday indicated the United States would yield.
Delaying the IAEA meeting, he said, means "There's not quite the sense of urgency I would have liked to have seen." But, he added, "it's not a major problem for us."
Powell reiterated a U.S. offer to talk to North Korea, but he did not add any preconditions as officials have in the past. "That will happen, I believe, eventually, and we will work out what the proper manner and form is," Powell said.