updated 12/3/2006 5:07:02 AM ET 2006-12-03T10:07:02

North Korea has offered Russia exclusive rights to its natural uranium deposits in exchange for support at the stalled talks on Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, a newspaper reported Sunday.

The two countries have been in talks since 2002 on a deal for Russia to import uranium, which it wants to enrich and sell as nuclear fuel to China and Vietnam, according to a report in the regional daily, Tokyo Shimbun, citing unnamed Russian officials.

North Korea recently offered Russia exclusive rights to the uranium in exchange for open support at the six-party talks on the North’s nuclear program, which have stalled since last year, the report stated.

Russia, which already exports natural gas and oil, hopes to become a major exporter of nuclear fuel, according to the report. Negotiations between Russia and North Korea were set to continue, the report added.

North Korea defied international demands by testing a nuclear weapon for the first time on Oct. 8. The United Nations quickly sanctioned the communist regime, banning member states from trading in weapons-related technology with the North.

Efforts to restart talks to halt the North’s nuclear program have so far failed. Russia, North and South Korea, Japan, China and the United States are involved in the talks.

U.S. nuclear envoy Christopher Hill and his North Korean counterpart, Kim Kye Gwan, failed to agree to a start date for negotiations after meeting in Beijing last week.

At those talks, Hill reportedly urged North Korea to shut down its nuclear testing facilities by the end of 2008, halt uranium production, let U.N. weapons inspectors back into the country and hand over a full list of its nuclear facilities.

In return, the other five countries would offer the North security guarantees, economic aid, and the possibility of normalizing U.S.-North Korea ties, the Kyodo News agency reported Saturday, citing unnamed officials.

Additional sanctions?
Pyongyang would face additional sanctions if it didn’t comply with the proposal, which was drawn up by the United States, Japan and South Korea, and shared with China and Russia, the report said, without elaborating.

The mass-circulation Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper carried a similar report.

Officials at Japan’s Foreign Ministry were unavailable for comment. The Russian embassy in Tokyo declined to comment.

North Korea withdrew from the six-party talks last November, angered at U.S. financial sanctions against a Macau-based bank where Pyongyang held several accounts that Washington alleged were used to launder money.

Kim, the North Korean envoy, has said Pyongyang will not unilaterally give up its nuclear weapons program.

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