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On the eve of negotiations, North Korea stands its ground

BEIJING—North Korea is digging in its heels before crucial nuclear talks rev up Monday, raising questions over whether it's jockeying for negotiating leverage or trying to buy more time to work on nuclear weapons.

In recent days, Pyongyang's main government-controlled newspaper has dismissed any suggestion that the lure of a massive aid package might pry the country from its nuclear weapons program.

If North Korea listens to the "sweet talk" of the West and accepts the aid to give up its nuclear weapons, "it will lead to our destruction," an editorial in the Rodong Shinmun said earlier this month.

The editorial asserted that Europe and the United States hoodwinked Libya a few years ago with a similar deal and stiffed the former communist bloc nations of Eastern Europe in pledges that led them to capitalism.

The blustery talk from Pyongyang may be designed to bolster its negotiating position in the talks, which come 10 weeks after the country conducted its first nuclear test.

Amid reports of pending U.S. incentives to stir North Korea to action at the talks, a senior Bush administration official said North Korean envoys had led him to believe in late November that Pyongyang might be ready to take steps toward dismantling its nuclear program.

"There were indications that the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea), the North Koreans, would be prepared to deal in specifics at the coming round," Christopher Hill, an assistant secretary of state who's the chief American envoy on North Korea, said in a briefing in Washington.

He said Washington wanted "concrete progress," not just talk, at the negotiations.

China tried to dampen expectations Thursday, and one veteran North Korea watcher voiced skepticism about whether the sixth round of negotiations—the first after a 13-month stalemate—would lead to any breakthrough.

"The six-party talks are likely to remain a meaningless exercise," said Andrei Lankov, a Russian-born expert on North Korea at Seoul's Kookmin University. The talks, hosted by China, also include South Korea, Russia, Japan and the United States. "The North Korean side is not willing to consider any serious concessions."

With a successful nuclear test under their belts, Lankov said, North Korean officials "are not in the mood to compromise. ... From their point of view, giving up the nuclear weapons is unnecessary and unthinkable."

North Korea is thought to be the world's ninth nuclear power.

Hill will arrive in Beijing on Sunday after a possible stop in Tokyo. He said he'd meet immediately in informal talks with Russian, Chinese and North Korean envoys.

The six-party negotiations, which China began hosting in 2003, begin Monday and are open-ended in length and flexible in format.

A flurry of news reports around the region offered conflicting signs about the positions of Washington and Pyongyang in the run-up to the talks.

In Seoul, the quasi-official Yonhap news agency, citing diplomatic sources, said the Bush administration had offered Pyongyang a written security guarantee in exchange for concrete actions to end its nuclear program.

A South Korean newspaper, the Hankook Ilbo, reported that North Korea has told the United States it's willing to shut down the key Yongbyon nuclear complex and accept inspections by U.N. nuclear monitors if conditions are met, mainly the lifting of U.S. sanctions imposed on North Korea over its alleged counterfeiting of American currency.

One crucial question remains unanswered: Is North Korea willing to consider giving up its nuclear weapons in exchange for abundant aid, diplomatic recognition and security guarantees?

Hill said he didn't know whether Pyongyang had made that strategic decision yet.

"I wish I could answer that question," Hill said. "At this point, I cannot tell whether that choice has been made or not."

The Bush administration says it thinks that North Korea has enough nuclear material for anywhere from eight to 10 bombs. As time passes, the number may be growing.

The former president of South Korea's military academy, Jang Joon-ik, told Yonhap this week that he thinks that Pyongyang will have 55 kilograms (121 pounds) of weapons-grade plutonium by the end of the year, and that continued reprocessing of spent fuel rods would give it enough fissile material to produce 50 nuclear bombs by 2010.


(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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