N Korea seeks to ease fears of nuke programme

North Korea has been trying to ease American fears of a secret atomic weapons programme and also denies sharing nuclear technology with other countries, the United States pointman on the issue said on Wednesday.

Christopher Hill, who is touring East Asia to try to break an impasse in disarmament talks, said the North has been trying to show that equipment it purchased was not for use in a covert uranium enrichment programme (UEP).

Disagreements over the alleged UEP are holding up a six-nation accord, under which the North was supposed by last December to have disabled its main plutonium-producing atomic plants and declared all nuclear programmes.

The US says the declaration must account fully for a suspected uranium-based programme, in addition to the declared plutonium operation, and also for any nuclear proliferation. The North has always denied that any UEP exists.

Hill, who is preparing for next week’s regional trip by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, met his North Korean counterpart Kim Kye-Gwan in Beijing on Tuesday.

“He wanted to make it very clear that they are not at present having any nuclear cooperation with any other country and they will not in future,” the Assistant Secretary of State told reporters on Wednesday.

“I made it very clear that for us to proceed, we need a complete and correct declaration.”

“We cannot pretend activities don’t exist when we know the activities have existed,” Hill added in reference to the UEP.

The US says it has evidence some materials were purchased which could be used in such a programme even if it is not operational.

“We have a situation where they have purchased some equipment and have been trying to show to us that this equipment is not being used for uranium enrichment,” Hill said.

As the North Koreans “take steps to show us that they are not using the equipment for uranium enrichment, those will be considered positive steps”, the US envoy added.

Washington points to Pyongyang’s purchase of thousands of aluminium tubes as evidence of a possible secret enrichment programme.

In December the Washington Post reported that the North had recently supplied smelted aluminium tubing to US scientists for testing.

The paper said minute traces of enriched uranium had been detected on the tubing, although these could have come from contamination from other equipment.

The US also demands the North clear up suspicions of possible nuclear technology transfer to Syria. Media reports have said an Israeli air strike in Syria last September may have targeted a joint nuclear project.

Hill said neither he nor his North Korean opposite number believe the six-party talks are locked in stalemate.

“He wanted to make it clear that he and his government are prepared to try to make progress to get through this and I told them we are also prepared to make progress on this.” - AFP

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