N Korean nuclear talks break up in disarray

Six-nation talks aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear-weapons programme broke up on Thursday following four days of deadlock, throwing efforts to implement a disarmament accord into disarray.

After North Korea’s chief envoy Kim Kye-Gwan abruptly abandoned the talks and flew home on Thursday afternoon, China announced that the latest round of negotiations had been suspended with no date set for their resumption.

It followed an increasingly frustrating wait for the return of $25-million of North Korean assets that had been frozen in a Macau bank since 2005, with Pyongyang’s envoy refusing to talk until the money was safely transferred.

Nevertheless, host China and the chief United States envoy insisted the tortuous process remained on track and they expected the Stalinist regime to abide by an agreement to shut down its key Yongbyon nuclear reactor by mid-April.

“The parties agreed to recess and will resume the talks at the earliest opportunity to continue to discuss and formulate an action plan,” a statement released by China said.

The statement said the six nations remained committed to implementing the February 13 accord under which North Korea would shut its Yongbyon reactor within 60 days of that agreement in return for 50 000 tonnes of fuel aid.

Chief US envoy Christopher Hill also told reporters that he expected North Korea to close Yongbyon within the 60-day timeframe.

“The six-party process continues to be on track,” Hill said. “It is our strong view that we are on schedule to meet the 60-day requirement.”

However, after the talks began on Monday amid expectations that the envoys would flesh out the accord and discuss a longer-term roadmap for disarmament, there was little else to report.

“We were not able to have substantive discussions over denuclearisation. It is regrettable,” chief Japanese envoy Kenichiro Sasae told reporters, with his comments echoed by his South Korean counterpart, Chun Yung-Woo.

“We were not able to have substantive discussions [on nuclear disarmament] at this round,” Chun said.

The $25-million had been frozen because of US accusations of money laundering and counterfeiting.

The US announced on Monday that it would allow the money to be returned in an effort to clear the path for progress in the disarmament talks.

But the money was not sent from Macau to a North Korean account at the Bank of China in Beijing, leaving the envoys frustrated and left with little to do but sit in their hotel rooms.

“We must not waste our time and we must swiftly go into discussions over issues of substance,” Sasae told reporters on Thursday morning.

Officials spoke of technical problems in transferring the money, but, adding to the confusion, the Bank of China said late on Thursday that it had not yet been asked to handle the transfer of the money.

“Up to now we have not been asked to do this business,” Li Lihui, the vice-chairperson and president of the Bank of China, told reporters in Hong Kong.

Hill, who repeatedly expressed frustration during the week at the lack of progress, said on Thursday morning that the transfer should not have been a reason to hold up the talks.

“This was a procedural, form-filling issue,” he said, adding he could offer no explanation for the North Koreans’ negotiating tactics.

“The day I explain to you the North Korean thinking is the day I have been in this process too long.”

North Korea, which conducted its first atomic weapons test in October last year, would eventually receive one million tonnes of heavy fuel or equivalent energy aid if it permanently dismantled its nuclear weapons programme.

The six-nation talks involve the two Koreas, China, the US, Japan and Russia.—AFP

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