Thu August 28, 2003 04:22 PM ET
By Carol Giacomo, Diplomatic Correspondent
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - North Korea, sending mixed messages, spoke of testing nuclear weapons and pursuing an end to their nuclear weapons program during six-party talks in Beijing, U.S. officials said on Thursday.
But the White House shrugged off Pyongyang's comments as typical inflammatory rhetoric and instead played up the North's growing isolation by lauding cooperation with China, Russia, South Korea and Japan.
U.S. officials said the Beijing meetings -- hosted by China, Pyongyang's closest ally -- were having the desired effect by underscoring how out of step the North is with other regional powers.
"The assessment from our team that's on the ground in Beijing is that this is a positive session," White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan told reporters.
"We believe there's been excellent cooperation in the talks among the five partners of the United States, including China, Japan, South Korea and Russia," she said.
Asked about reports that the North indicated a determination to test nuclear weapons, she added: "North Korea has a long history of making inflammatory comments that serve to isolate it from the rest of the world."
After four hours of talks on Thursday, the United States and the five other parties expect to meet again on Friday, Deputy State Department spokesman Phillip Reeker said.
He told a news briefing there were no decisions about future meetings.
After months of frantic diplomacy and accelerating North Korean nuclear activity, China arranged the six-party talks this week to defuse a crisis over the isolated communist regime's nuclear program.
The United States says Pyongyang has one or two nuclear weapons and is nearing the capability to produce more.
North Korea, which President Bush has named part of an "axis of evil" with Iraq and Iran, maintains it has a right to a nuclear deterrent to fend off what it regards as American hostility.
U.S. officials told Reuters the North Koreans talked about their willingness to demonstrate their nuclear capability on the margins of the Beijing meeting during an informal conversation with the head of the American delegation, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly.
"They certainly are talking about it ... but it was not part of their formal presentation," one official said.
But officials said that during the first two days of meetings, the North also "used words like dismantlement."
"Some of this is really nuanced stuff. We heard both things. This is characteristic of the North Koreans. They are all over the place. Either they do have or don't have nuclear weapons, depending whom you talk to. It's a calculated game of confusing the adversary and giving them mixed messages," one official said.
With the other five parties in agreement on the need for a non-nuclear Korean peninsula, he speculated that Pyongyang was attempting to exert some control and leverage by keeping the five off balance and trying to manipulate the anxiety level.
Another official said the North Koreans "were under pretty rigid instructions and they adopted apriori a certain demeanor that didn't prove to be congruent with the tone of the meeting."
"That kind of firebreathing rhetoric makes them their own worst enemies ... The tone was not encouraging," he added.
In contrast, while Kelly restated Washington's tough position on the need for the North to completely, verifiably and irreversibly dismantle its nuclear programs, officials said he presented the U.S. views in a "reasoned tone" that seemed to go over well with other delegations.
Despite the North Korean behavior, some U.S. officials still thought it might be possible that a statement could emerge on Friday from the meeting, especially if the North Koreans go back to Pyongyang overnight for further instructions.
The good news is that "the talks did not blow up. We came in a businesslike, serious way to try to pursue this issue and that seemed to be recognized by most in the region," one official said.
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