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Negotiators make little headway in `excruciating' North Korea talks

BEIJING—Deepening fatigue and vexation on Friday bedeviled marathon talks to disarm North Korea of its nuclear weapons, and the chief U.S. negotiator complained of "excruciating" jawboning sessions to work around a deadlock.

A central sticking point has been North Korea's insistence that it retain the right to operate nuclear programs for peaceful purposes.

"We had another long day," U.S. envoy Christopher Hill said Friday evening. "We made a little progress but I must say we didn't make enough progress."

Even the Chinese hosts of the six-nation talks on the North Korean nuclear crisis didn't attempt to camouflage the disagreements that were forcing the talks into a 12th day, Saturday, with no end in sight.

China's state-run Xinhua news agency quoted a South Korean envoy, Soon Min-soon, as saying North Korea and the United States "failed to narrow their differences" after a bilateral meeting earlier in the day.

The talks are the longest ever in the six-nation process that began in 2003, leaving diplomats combating exhaustion and flirting with the temptation to call a halt. North Korea has balked at a final document agreed to by U.S., Russian, Japanese, South Korean and Chinese negotiators, insisting that it won't give up all its nuclear programs.

"Recess is one of the sort of termination scenarios, where the idea would be we take some time and delegations go back to capitals," Hill said.

Hill said Washington opposed North Korea's demand that it be allowed to retain nuclear plants for energy or research purposes because the nation had a history of turning such plants into weapons factories.

"We have a state that has taken research reactors and turned them into bomb-making reactors," he said.

Confronted with U.S. evidence, North Korea admitted in 2002 that it had broken a 1994 nuclear-disarmament agreement, sparking the crisis. Last February, Pyongyang said it had taken spent fuel rods and converted them to nuclear weapons.

Other parties to the talks appear less adamant than Washington does about pressing North Korea to give up all nuclear activity, including generating electricity.

One scholar said the Stalinist regime in Pyongyang was insisting on its right to a civilian nuclear program with hopes that it could attract newer technology—and perhaps eventually build better bombs.

"They want to have access to modern nuclear technology even if they sacrifice nuclear weapons right now. This is in order to create nuclear weapons in the future if they feel they need them. It's an unstated target," said Andrei N. Lankov, a visiting scholar at Kookmin University in Seoul.

Endowed only with low-quality coal, North Korea has genuine energy needs. South Korea and Russia have offered massive amounts of energy to the North as an inducement to dismantle weapons programs, but Pyongyang is leery of relying on neighbors for power.

"I don't think the North Koreans will ever accept power coming from Russia or Seoul, where they can turn off the switch," said Ralph A. Cossa, the president of the Pacific Forum of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Honolulu, a national-security research center.

North Korea's top diplomat to the talks, Kim Kye-Gwan, said late Thursday that his nation "is neither a defeated nation in a war nor a nation having committed any crimes, so why should we not be allowed to use the nuclear power peacefully?"

Pyongyang's demand for a civilian energy program also allows it to exploit significant differences among the other nations at the talks.

"The North Koreans may see this as an opportunity to drive wedges between the other countries," Cossa said.

Hill said negotiators tried to sweep up some smaller issues Friday but found themselves in "kind of an excruciating process" that brought little headway.

Diplomats tried to finesse the matter, providing a fourth and latest version of a draft statement that would allow both the United States and North Korea to claim victory.

The statement unambiguously demands dismantlement of "all nuclear weapons and nuclear programs," but Seoul's Chosun Ilbo newspaper cited a South Korean official as saying it would give North Korea a back door to restart a civilian nuclear-energy program if it rejoined the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and let nuclear inspectors back in the country.


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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