Saturday, June 26, 2004

North Korea’s threat to test nuclear weapons unless the United States make concessions at the six-party talks is being viewed with worry by the Bush administration.

The threat, another sign of Pyongyang brinksmanship, came during the latest round of talks in Beijing between chief North Korean negotiator Kim Gye Kwan and James Kelly, the assistant secretary of state for East Asia, according to U.S. officials.

The North Korean official told Mr. Kelly that North Korean Foreign Ministry officials are under growing pressure from hard-liners within the military to win support for Pyongyang’s proposals, or they will conduct a nuclear test, said officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The statement on the nuclear test also was viewed with alarm by officials in Japan and South Korea, the U.S. officials said.

And in a step back from earlier talks, the North Koreans at this week’s session again denied having a covert uranium enrichment program — the main disclosure made by North Korea in October 2002 that triggered the current nuclear crisis.

At the last round of talks in May, North Korean negotiator Ri Gun asked whether the United States would be willing to resume work on two electrical power-generating nuclear reactors if North Korea agrees to resolve its uranium enrichment program.

At the State Department, spokesman Adam Ereli sought to play down the North Korean remarks, insisting that Pyongyang was not making a threat.

“It was phrased as a statement that some in Pyongyang wanted to test a nuclear weapon,” Mr. Ereli told reporters. “It was not phrased or given as an ultimatum.”

But other U.S. officials said the comments had to be viewed as a sign that the six-party talks are not making progress toward winning an agreement from North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons programs. The talks are scheduled to end today.

All sides agreed to convene the next full round of talks by the end of September in Beijing.

North Korea presented its proposal at this week’s talks, which has been characterized in public as “compensation for freeze” of all nuclear arms work.

The U.S. position at the talks was presented by Mr. Kelly in his opening statement. He repeated the tough U.S. posture of demanding a complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantling, or CVID, of the nuclear arms program before any concessions are made.

However, U.S. support among the six parties — the United States, China, Russia, North Korea, South Korea and Japan — is weakening with successive sessions, the officials said.

Russia is now openly backing North Korean positions at the talks, and the Chinese government also is supporting its fellow communist state, the officials said.

South Korea is said to be somewhat neutral or leaning in favor of Pyongyang, while only Japan remains firmly on the side of the U.S. position, the officials said.

Russia’s government said earlier this week that it is willing to provide security guarantees to North Korea as a way to break the diplomatic impasse.

White House National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice has said in the past that the United States would continue to pursue a diplomatic solution to the North Korean nuclear problem as long as the talks in Beijing were making progress.

A State Department official in Beijing described the talks Thursday as a combination of “some good, some bad, some a little ugly,” the latter an apparent reference to the nuclear-testing discussion.

“We made clear that we would certainly not welcome any such thing and we believe that any such thing would be a very unwise choice,” this official said.

A nuclear test by North Korea would formally make the reclusive communist state a declared nuclear power and likely set off a nuclear arms race in the region.

Mr. Ereli said the North Korean comment was “not something new.”

“We’ve heard these sort of comments before,” he said.

The exchange on North Korea’s threat to test a nuclear weapon came in a two-hour meeting Thursday that Mr. Ereli described as constructive.

The final round of talks was held yesterday, and a joint statement was to be issued.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman told reporters that a consensus was reached at the talks that a nuclear freeze by North Korea would be a first step in resolving the issue.

Mr. Ereli said the North Koreans took note of a plan presented by Mr. Kelly earlier this week that would give economic assistance and security guarantees to the country if it commits to dismantle its nuclear weapons programs.

“They characterized our proposal as positive,” Mr. Ereli said. “I think we came away from this discussion… with the firm view that the North Koreans are going to give our proposal very serious consideration.”

Mr. Ereli noted that North Korea is continuing work on its nuclear program and also poses a danger of providing weapons to dangerous states and regions.

“We remain concerned by the full scope of North Korea’s nuclear program, not only its activity in North Korea but also its proliferation activity.”

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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