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Powell confers with North Korea on nuclear standoff

Associated Press

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Secretary of State Colin Powell conferred with a North Korean diplomat Wednesday about the nuclear standoff on the Korean Peninsula after asserting that the help of Southeast Asian nations in achieving a solution is essential.

It was a chance encounter that brought Powell together with North Korean Ambassador-at-Large Ho Jong after a luncheon for representatives of more than 20 Asia/Pacific countries, a senior State Department official said.

They talked for about three minutes, with Powell restating his case that broad participation in a negotiation is the best way to deal with the developing nuclear crisis on the peninsula, said the U.S. official, who spoke on condition he not be identified. The official did not describe Ho’s response.

Ho used his speech to the gathering to renew his appeal for direct U.S.-North Korean talks, the official said.

The occasion was the annual meeting of the regional forum of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which has 10 member countries, and officials from the United States, China, Russia, South Korea and others in the region.

In his speech to a closed-door meeting, Powell discussed North Korea’s efforts to build both plutonium- and uranium-based nuclear weapons, saying that ASEAN’s help “in keeping pressure on North Korea is absolutely necessary if we are to achieve the goal all of us seek: a diplomatic solution that leaves the peninsula, the region and the world safer.”

“This is not a bilateral matter between the United States and North Korea,” Powell said. “It affects every nation in the region that would fall under the arc of a North Korean missile. And thus, it must be solved as a multilateral problem.”

The text of the speech was not released but a State Department official provided details to reporters.

Meanwhile, North Korea’s official news agency, KCNA, said Wednesday that the country will step up efforts to strengthen its “nuclear deterrent” in response to U.S. pressure, and it again rejected the American call for multilateral talks.

Last July, Powell met for 15 minutes with North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun at the Asia/Pacific ministerial meeting in Brunei. Two lower level U.S.-North Korea meetings have been held since then, one in Pyongyang in October and the other in Beijing in April.

Also on Wednesday, Powell and his aides were trying to arrange meetings for him with Israeli and Palestinian leaders on Friday but were encountering unspecified logistical issues. At a news conference, Powell declined to discuss the problems but said he expected the visit to go ahead.

He said he wanted an update from special envoy John Wolf, who has been in the region meeting with both sides. Powell added that he wants “to make sure that we are putting energy and momentum” into the peace effort and into the commitments Israeli and Palestinian leaders made to President Bush two weeks ago in Aqaba.