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Talks unravel as US threatens N.Korean asset freeze
Updated: 2005-09-16 18:35

The United States threatened to freeze North Korean assets if the N. Korea did not toe the line in talks aimed at ending its nuclear weapons programme, and said it wanted to see progress within five days, the Associated Press reported.

Christopher Hill (R), U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs and top U.S. negotiator for the six-party talks, speaks to journalists before continuation of talks in Beijing September 16, 2005. [Reuters]

But the six-country talks in Beijing looked in jeopardy on Friday -- their fourth day -- as Pyongyang hung tough, rejecting a South Korean offer of electricity in return for giving up nuclear arms and insisting on its right to nuclear energy.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the United States was not solely dependent on the talks to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

"We're not sitting still, you know, we're working on anti-proliferation measures that help to protect us," Rice said in an interview conducted on Thursday with the New York Post, a transcript of which was released by the State Department.

"The president signed an executive order, if you remember that freezes assets and some entities that we believe that are engaging in proliferation trade," she said.

With the talks already in deadlock because of North Korea's insistence on being supplied with a light-water nuclear reactor, reports said that Pyongyang had gone further and threatened to boost nuclear weapons production if its demand was not met.

"Just in the last couple of days, they've come back with a whole new concept. That is a light-water reactor. So indeed we have a problem," chief U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill said.

South Korea has offered to supply the North with 2,000 megawatts of electricity if it scraps its nuclear weapons programmes, and has said it would not be opposed in principle to Pyongyang having an atomic energy programme in the future.

But North Korea turned the offer down, one source said.

"North Korea adamantly insisted on a light-water reactor and the United States refused to accept the North Korean demand," the source, close to the talks, told Reuters. "In that context, North Korea effectively rejected the South Korean energy package, which is one of the pillars of our proposals."

Failure to reach an accord in Beijing could prompt Washington to take the issue to the U.N. Security Council and press for sanctions. China opposes such a move, and North Korea has said sanctions would be tantamount to war.

Rice hinted at a deadline for the negotiations between the two Koreas, the United States, Japan, Russia and China.

"So we'll see, I think in the next five or so days ... whether or not they're prepared to make a strategic choice about their nuclear weapons programmes ... and that will show us whether we can get a deal," she said.


Japan said Friday could be key.

"I believe today will be a trial day," its chief delegate, Kenichiro Sasae, told reporters. "It is important that North Korea reconsider its position over the issue of a light-water reactor."

China proposed a revised draft statement to delegates at the talks and asked for a response before Saturday afternoon, a South Korean official said. No details were immediately available.

North Korea defended its position.

"All the countries have expressed understanding of our position, but only the United States is adamantly against it," a spokesman for the North Korean delegation said.

North Korea told the U.S. and Japanese delegations that "as long as our concerns about the light-water reactors are not fulfilled, we cannot abandon nuclear weapons," Japan's Kyodo news agency quoted sources at the talks as saying.

North Korea also indicated it was proceeding with the processing of spent fuel rods into plutonium, Kyodo said.

U.S. intelligence estimates that Pyongyang has already produced enough bomb-grade plutonium fuel from a five-megawatt reactor at Yongbyon to make nine or more nuclear weapons.

Washington, which once branded North Korea as part of an "axis of evil" along with Iran and Saddam Hussein's Iraq, says it must end all nuclear programmes verifiably and irreversibly.

It says the North can then expect aid and security guarantees, but Pyongyang says these must come first.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, taking a softer line, said on Thursday the United States should consider normalising relations with North Korea.

"Any settlement that purports to be fundamental needs to embrace the normalisation of relations between the U.S. and North Korea," he said in New York.

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