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« Hamas PM urges unity deal with Abbas as truce holds | Main | Iran installs 328 centrifuges at atomic site: sources »

February 05, 2007

Optimism as North Korea readies for nuclear talks

SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea heads into talks with the region's main powers this week with signs the impoverished state may be ready to agree to an initial deal over demands it stop building a nuclear arsenal in exchange for aid.

Mon Feb 5, 2007 6:07am ET

By Jonathan Thatcher

But diplomats and analysts say there is no chance the North will agree to completely give up its atomic weaponry at the six-way talks with the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States, which resume on Thursday in Beijing.

"North Korea is feeling the heat," said Chun Bong-geun, a senior researcher at South Korea's Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security. "I don't think it will be a huge deal. It'll be something small."

He said that should be enough for the South Korean government to resume crucial shipments of food and fertilizer to the reclusive North, stopped after Pyongyang's defied international warnings and test fired missiles last July.

The international community later imposed sanctions after North Korea's first nuclear test last October.

The main focus of the latest round of talks is likely to be on winning agreement from North Korea to at least shut down its Yongbyon nuclear plant -- the source of fissile material for its nuclear weapons program.

Washington's envoy to the talks, Christopher Hill, told reporters in Tokyo that the ultimate goal was for North Korea to "get out of this nuclear business entirely".

"I think we have continued reason to believe that the North Koreans will come to this round prepared to negotiate on the issues before us ... So let's see if that proves true," Hill said.


A pro-Pyongyang newspaper in Japan, the Chosun Sinbo, said the North had told the other parties to the talks it was ready to shut down its nuclear reactor and accept the return of international nuclear inspectors, thrown out more than four years ago.

In return, it wanted supplies of alternative energy until light-water reactors -- which do not produce material that can easily be turned into nuclear warheads -- can be built in the country which is plagued by power shortages.

That would be close to a deal in 1994, which eventually collapsed in acrimony, between the United States and North Korea and which included supplying the North large quantities of fuel oil a year until the new reactors were up and running.

North Korea did agree in 2005 to scrap its nuclear weapons program in exchange for aid and security guarantees.

But it then walked away from the talks, incensed by a U.S. clampdown on its overseas finances, only returning to them last December.

This time, diplomats and analysts say there seems to be willingness by Washington and Pyongyang to reach some sort of deal.

"They are not meaningless steps because they are the first steps toward the ultimate goal of scrapping the (North's) nuclear program and the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula," a South Korean foreign ministry official said.

Hill, speaking to reporters in Seoul at the weekend, said Pyongyang had to come up with specific steps on dismantling its weapons program.

Even if the North does shut down its nuclear reactor, some analysts estimate it has stashed away enough fissile material for at least six to eight nuclear weapons.

"Whatever agreement they can reach on first steps, it is still far too long a way to go to complete the dismantling of North Korea's nuclear programs," said Noriyuki Suzuki, chief analyst at Tokyo-based Radiopress news agency, which specializes in monitoring North Korean media.

"There will be lots of twists and turns ahead."

(Additional reporting by Jack Kim in Seoul, and Linda Sieg and Teruaki Ueno in Tokyo)

Posted by Publisher at February 5, 2007 01:07 PM


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