Wednesday, March 16, 2005

GENEVA — North Korea has asked the U.N. relief agency to close its operations in Pyongyang, saying it is not needed, a senior U.N. official confirmed yesterday.

The United Nations has triggered a flurry of diplomatic activity in Geneva, New York and Pyongyang to persuade the reportedly destitute Asian nation not to proceed with the move to close the Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), U.N. and Western diplomatic sources said.

“We have been informed by North Korean authorities that they do not intend at the moment to welcome a new head of the OCHA office in Pyongyang when the present representative’s term expires in August,” Jan Egeland, U.N. undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs and OCHA chief, told reporters here yesterday.

North Korea also yesterday ruled out a return to stalled six-way talks on its nuclear weapons programs unless the United States retracts its labeling of Pyongyang as an “outpost of tyranny.”

A Foreign Ministry spokesman said recent comments by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in interviews with Reuters and The Washington Times — in which she refused to apologize for giving North Korea the tyranny tag — indicated the United States did not want to hold talks.

“It is quite illogical for the U.S. to intend to negotiate with [North Korea] without retracting its remarks listing its dialogue partner as an ‘outpost of tyranny,’” the spokesman said in comments published by the North’s official KCNA news agency.

The spokesman described Miss Rice as reckless, “bereft of any political logic” and someone Pyongyang could not deal with.

Miss Rice began a six-country Asian tour on Tuesday and will visit Seoul at week’s end. North Korea’s nuclear ambitions are a major focus of her visit to Asiae.

The United States, China, Japan, Russia and South Korea are seeking to persuade the North to give up its nuclear capability, but talks have stalled.

North Korea first indicated its intentions to expel OCHA in a meeting with agency officials in Geneva on March 9.

Sources familiar with the issue said the number of international staffers present in the country, including nongovernmental aid groups, has worried Pyongyang for some time.

“There’s no need for [OCHA] to stay … once ongoing projects are finished,” a North Korean diplomatic source said on the condition of anonymity.

“We need assistance, but not humanitarian. It should be development assistance such as machinery for agriculture,” the source said.

Mr. Egeland said he was still hopeful he could persuade Pyongyang not to close the OCHA office.

“In our view the humanitarian crisis is continuing. Still [there’s] a great shortage of food and there’s a great shortage of medicines,” he said.

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