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N. Korea, US hold meeting - No progress made on nuclear issues
( 2003-08-28 17:22) (Washington Post)

The United States and North Korea staked out uncompromising positions yesterday as the two countries met for the first time since April for talks on Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program.

Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly demanded that North Korea unconditionally abandon its nuclear weapons program in a "complete, verifiable and irreversible manner." North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Yong-il, meanwhile, warned that unless Washington agreed to a nonaggression treaty, Pyongyang would continue building a nuclear deterrent, said sources who participated in the talks.

The rigid positions were mapped out as the two sides met with representatives from four other nations on the first day of talks in Beijing on the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula.

Russia's envoy, Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov, told the Interfax news agency that the negotiations were "fragile." He warned that if the talks collapsed, the crisis could degenerate into a "hot conflict."

A Japanese Foreign Ministry official was less alarmist. "We are neutral," he told reporters. "We have not made any assessment."

Asked whether the North Koreans were sincere, the official said: "I'm asking that question myself."

The talks among North and South Korea, the United States, Japan, China and Russia are aimed at defusing a standoff that began in October, when the Bush administration announced that North Korean negotiators had revealed the existence of a secret nuclear weapons program.

After its meeting with North Korea and China in April, the United States demanded that any further negotiations be done in a multilateral setting. Under pressure from China, North Korea agreed, but only if it could be assured of a one-on-one meeting with the United States during the talks.

North Korea got that meeting yesterday afternoon, when, following the plenary session, U.S. negotiators huddled with their North Korean counterparts for about 30 minutes, participants at the talks said.

Secretary of State Colin Powell has said repeatedly that the Bush administration has no intention of attacking North Korea and would be prepared to put it in writing. But the administration does not want to tie its hands with a formal treaty or nonaggression pact.

The Korean crisis is one of Asia's most intractable and dangerous issues. A North Korea that refuses to abandon its nuclear program could have grave consequences for the region, experts believe.

Washington fears the North Korean government, known for using diplomats and state-run companies as drug couriers and purveyors of counterfeit currency, could give nuclear weapons technology to terrorists. Some Bush administration officials have said they do not believe the regime of Kim Jong Il will abandon its nuclear program, no matter what Washington does.

For its part, China worries that a nuclear North Korea could prompt Japan to remilitarize and could lead to nuclear proliferation in South Korea and even Taiwan. Japan worries that a nuclear-armed North Korea would be most liable to target Japan.

South Korea fears a war would end up destroying its capital, Seoul, only 35 miles from the Korean border.

Asian analysts were not predicting any immediate breakthroughs. Masao Okonogi, professor of international politics and a Korea specialist at Tokyo's Keio University, said, "The standoff will continue. If the date for the next meeting is set, that will be a success."

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