The United States and North Korea urged each other Sunday to make concessions as envoys to disarmament talks called a three-week recess, deadlocked over what the American envoy said was the North’s demand for a nuclear power plant.
The adjournment came after 13 days of talks failed to produce a statement of principles to guide renewed negotiations aimed at persuading North Korea to renounce nuclear weapons. The delegations said the six-nation talks would resume the week of Aug. 29.
The U.S. envoy, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, said talks stalled over the North’s demand for the statement to include a promise that it be given a nuclear reactor. He said all five other delegations rejected that.
“We decided it was time to end it and go to recess, with the idea that they can go back and think about what they’ve been told, which is, they’re not going to get a light-water reactor,” Hill told reporters.
He expressed hope North Korea’s communist regime would drop the demand once its envoys explained the rejection, saying, “Perhaps people back in Pyongyang need to hear it directly.”
But the North’s chief envoy, Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan, said that during the recess Washington should “change its policy on not letting us have any kind of nuclear activities.”
The dispute is “one of the very important elements that led us to fail to come up with an agreement,” Kim said at a news conference in the North Korean Embassy. He did not mention the reactor cited by Hill.
North Korea has been under international pressure since late 2002 when Washington said the North admitted running a clandestine program that violated a 1994 agreement to give up development of atomic weapons.
The North later withdrew from the international Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which barred it from obtaining nuclear arms, and claimed in February that it now possesses atomic warheads. That claim has not been verified, but U.S. intelligence and other estimates say the North has as many as six atomic bombs.
The latest round of talks is the fourth in a series arranged by China, which diplomats say lobbied North Korea aggressively to make a deal. The talks also involve South Korea, Japan and Russia.
China is North Korea’s biggest ally and aid donor. But experts say Chinese leaders worry that letting the North acquire nuclear weapons could destabilize the region by encouraging South Korea and Japan to do the same.
During the recess, the six governments “are supposed to maintain contact and consultations,” said China’s chief delegate, Vice Foreign Minister Wu Dawei. But he warned that even after they return from the recess, “I can’t say for sure that we will reach agreement.”
North Korea says that in exchange for renouncing nuclear weapons, it wants economic and energy aid, a peace treaty and normalized relations with Washington. It also wants the United States to remove any “nuclear threat” of its own from the Korean Peninsula.
The United States has some 32,500 military personnel in South Korea, but Washington says no nuclear weapons are deployed there and it has no intention of invading the North.
Hill said North Korea also wants its negotiating partners to provide a nuclear reactor to “demonstrate our commitment to their right to eventual civilian use” of nuclear technology.
A light-water reactor was promised to the North in the 1994 deal as part of a U.S. aid package, but Hill said that reactor “is simply not on the table” anymore. He has cited the North’s conversion of a reactor at Yongbyon that supposedly was built for research into one that Washington says can make material for atomic bombs.
Diplomats said earlier that the talks also snagged on the question of aid for North Korea, which already depends on foreign contributions to feed its 23 million people because its government-run farm system has collapsed. Pyongyang wants concessions for freezing nuclear work and more later for dismantling its program, while Washington says it will give nothing until the program is verifiably dismantled. But Hill played down the disagreements on such issues as aid and normalization of relations.
“All of those the North Korean delegate and I agreed could be resolved,” Hill said. “The deal-breaker was the question of denuclearization and their desire to put the focus back on ‘re-nuclearization’ via a light-water reactor.”
Demand for kidnappers
Taking up another issue, a Japanese official said Japan’s chief envoy demanded Sunday that North Korea return abducted Japanese nationals and hand over their kidnappers.
Kenichiro Sasae made the demand during a 20-minute meeting with the North’s vice foreign minister, said the official, who spoke with reporters on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks.
North Korea has admitted its agents abducted 13 Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s, saying the five it allowed to leave in recent years were the only survivors. But a former North Korean agent who defected in 1993 said last month in Tokyo that he knew of 15 abductees.
The issue is sensitive for the Japanese, and suspicions of North Korea have kept relations strained.