Key US official quits ahead of N Korea talks

Wednesday, Aug 27, 2003,Page 5

One of the US' most experienced North Korea negotiators has resigned ahead of what may be the start of a key cycle of talks on ending North Korea's nuclear ambitions, US officials said on Monday.

Charles "Jack" Pritchard, the US special envoy to North Korea, stepped down on Friday, just days before this week's six-party talks in Beijing designed to persuade Pyongyang to give up its suspected nuclear-weapons program.

The UD Department of State praised Pritchard's "distinguished career" and said he decided to join the private sector after years of government service. But the timing of the decision was unusual, coming just as what may be the administration's first substantive talks with the communist regime were to start.

Pritchard advocated engaging the North in negotiations in an administration deeply divided on the issue. A holdover from the Clinton administration, he was viewed as an adversary by some Bush hard-liners, who have resisted talks with Pyongyang.

The Beijing talks, which will gather the two Koreas, Russia, China, Japan and the US, are seen as the start of what is likely to be a long process of finding a way to persuade the secretive communist nation to give up what US officials believe is an extensive atomic weapons program.

The State Department denied the departure of Pritchard -- a 28-year army veteran who served on the National Security Council under former president Bill Clinton and accompanied former secretary of state Madeleine Albright to Pyongyang in 2000 -- was related to disagreements over Korea policy.

"Secretary [of State Colin] Powell specifically said to note how much he appreciates everything Ambassador Pritchard has done," said State Department spokesman Philip Reeker. He said Pritchard's departure had been in the works for months.

Asked if the departure was policy-related, he replied: "No. The department would have welcomed his further contributions to US efforts to deal with the North Korea issue, including his participation in the Beijing talks, but certainly we understand the personal decision he's made to move on to other things."

Pritchard's departure comes after claims -- which a US official denied -- that he told a North Korea official that a recent speech harshly critical of Pyongyang reflected only the personal views of Under Secretary of State John Bolton, an administration hard-liner.

The State Department has said that Bolton's July 31 speech, in which he called life in North Korea as a "hellish nightmare" for many, was cleared by the US government.

In a letter to Powell, Arizona Republican Senator Jon Kyl said he understood Pritchard told a North Korean diplomat at the UN the speech reflected Bolton's personal views.

"It is obviously unproductive for such mixed messages to be conveyed, particularly as the United States prepares to engage in multilateral discussions over North Korea's nuclear weapons program," Kyl wrote letter dated last Wednesday.

A State Department official denied Pritchard made such a remark. "Ambassador Pritchard did not say anything like that to the North Koreans," said the official. "He was not pressured or forced to leave."

There have been clashes on Korea policy in the Bush administration virtually since its inception, with the State Department generally seen as favoring talks with Pyongyang and hard-liners affiliated with the Pentagon resistant to them.