Nuclear talks hit another hurdle

BEIJING — North Korea says it won’t even discuss dismantling its nuclear weapons until Washington has normalized relations, a U.S. scholar who visited the North said yesterday.

The new demand for formal relations is a victory for North Korean hard-liners and adds another complication to stalled talks on North Korea’s nuclear program, according to Selig Harrison, director of the Asia Project of the Center for International Policy and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

“The chance to negotiate is gone,” Mr. Harrison said. “They told me that they are not prepared to discuss dismantling their nuclear weapons until their relations with the United States, economic and diplomatic, have been normalized.”

North Korean officials also said they will not return to the six-nation talks organized by China until Washington apologizes for listing the North among the world’s “outposts of tyranny,” he said.

The North declared in February that it had nuclear weapons, though outsiders have seen no proof.

Three rounds of talks on demands for the North to give up its nuclear ambitions have produced no settlement. Participants, which also include South Korea, Japan and Russia, missed a September target for holding a new round when the North refused to take part.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice suggested last month that the North could face sanctions if talks fail.

Mr. Harrison said North Korean officials rejected a proposal under discussion in earlier talks to give up their nuclear program in stages in exchange for aid.

China and South Korea supported that plan, though Washington has refused to provide any aid until the North’s program is completely dismantled. Washington says it does not object to others providing aid earlier, so long as Pyongyang has committed to dismantling.

Mr. Harrison said he met this week with Kim Yong-nam, head of North Korea’s legislature; Vice Foreign Ministry Kang Sok-ju; and Kim Gye-gwan, the North’s envoy to the nuclear talks. He said he did not meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

One official issued what sounded like a threat.

“The United States should consider the danger that we could transfer nuclear weapons to terrorists, that we have the ability to do so,” Mr. Harrison quoted Kim Gye-gwan as saying, Japan’s Kyodo News service reported.

“The body language and my entire experience there this time made me more prepared to believe that they have some operational weapons,” said Mr. Harrison, who has visited the North nine times since 1972.

Mr. Harrison said during his visit, a senior North Korean general also warned against Washington trying to impose an embargo, saying it would trigger retaliation by Pyongyang.

“That would be the beginning of a war, and we would have the right to attack the U.S., including the U.S. mainland,” Mr. Harrison quoted Gen. Ri Chan-bok, the North’s commander on its heavily armed frontier with South Korea, as saying.

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