Last-ditch wrangling over N Korean nuclear issue

Delegates were engaged in last-ditch wrangling on Sunday over a proposed joint document aimed at breaking the deadlock in North Korean nuclear talks, but there was no sign of any compromise, and discussions will go into a seventh day.

Japan’s chief delegate Kenichiro Sasae called it a ”make-or-break day”. But after two short meetings between envoys from the six nations involved, China said the talks will continue on Monday.

”The talks are nearing the end and will continue on Monday,” said Chinese delegation spokesperson Liu Jianchao.

Disagreements centre on the demand by energy-starved North Korea for the right to peaceful atomic power in return for giving up its nuclear-weapons programme, with the United States and Japan saying the Stalinist state cannot be trusted.

The timing of concessions to North Korea in return for abandoning its nuclear arsenal is also an issue. The US wants the process to start with a complete and verifiable dismantling of the weapons, while Pyongyang wants a step-by-step approach.

Failure to reach an agreement could force Washington to take the issue to the United Nations Security Council and press for sanctions, a move opposed by China. North Korea has said such a step would be tantamount to war.

Sasae said he remains hopeful a solution will be reached.

”I do believe there is a possibility of reaching an agreement. I am not sure at this moment,” he said when leaving his hotel in the morning.

US envoy Christopher Hill said after a banquet hosted by China on Saturday evening that another recess was possible, in which the countries would go back to their governments for further advice.

Three previous rounds and a 13-day, fourth-round session failed to narrow the gap separating the US and North Korea in a crisis now three years old. The fourth round resumed on Tuesday after a five-week recess.

The stand-off erupted in October 2002 when the US said North Korea was running a clandestine uranium-enrichment programme, prompting it to withdraw from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

China put forward a new version of a draft common document on Friday, which Russian negotiator Alexander Alexeyev said includes a reference to the North’s right to civilian nuclear programmes and to a light water reactor.

Delegates were given a deadline of Saturday to come back with their answers, but some countries requested more time to assess the proposal.

North Korea has not publicly commented on it yet but has insisted it will never give up its nuclear programme before getting rewards.

Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted an unnamed North Korean official as saying it ”repeats the US’s position, which North Korea cannot accept”.

”Therefore, another recess will likely have to be announced in the fourth round,” the official told Interfax.

Despite the apparent gulf still separating them, Hill said on Sunday all the negotiators are ”very supportive of the document”.

”The issue is the tactics of how we express elements in the document,” he said. ”Some delegations prefer to leave something more ambiguous. My delegation would like to see things less ambiguous.”

Under a now-defunct 1994 agreement, a US-led consortium was supposed to build two light water reactors for North Korea to replace its existing graphite-moderated reactors, which can produce weapons-grade plutonium.

But construction was suspended after the US accused the North of developing a secret uranium-enrichment programme. North Korea denied the charge, threw out weapons inspectors and withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

It has since said it has developed nuclear bombs. — Sapa-AFP

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Jun Kwanwoo
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