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U.S. officials downplay North Korean nuclear test comments; North insists on energy aid

Updated:
BEIJING (AP) _ U.S. officials on Friday played down comments by North Korea that it might test an atomic bomb, saying six-nation talks on the North's nuclear program were ``moving along'' even though the latest round produced no breakthroughs.

North Korean envoys affirmed that Pyongyang regards its offer this week to freeze its nuclear program as a step toward dismantling it, which is the outcome demanded by Washington, a senior U.S. official said.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that a North Korean envoy mentioned Thursday that some in the North wanted to test a bomb.

``But it was not phrased as a threat,'' the official told reporters.

China canceled a planned closing ceremony Saturday, suggesting the four-day talks might end on a sour note. Negotiators also decided against issuing a joint statement after the talks, choosing instead to release a less formal declaration.

Still, diplomats portrayed the talks as the most useful and substantive to date. Delegations held detailed discussions of competing U.S. and North Korean proposals on the dispute, they said.

``There have been no breakthroughs,'' the U.S. official said. ``The process is moving along, but we're not ready to declare success.''

The official said the envoys hadn't set a date for another round of talks or for lower-level technical discussions but wanted to proceed with work as quickly as possible.

Two previous rounds of talks in the Chinese capital produced no headway. Other participants were host China, South Korea, Japan and Russia.

The U.S. official's comments in Beijing contradicted an account Thursday by an official in Washington, who told reporters the North's envoy had threatened a nuclear test if the United States did not accept its conditions for a freeze. The official in Washington said the threat was made by Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan during a 2 1/2 hour private meeting Thursday with the U.S. envoy, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly.

The dispute flared in late 2002 after Washington said Pyongyang admitted operating a secret nuclear program, breaking a 1994 agreement on freezing the atomic program under which the North received oil and other aid.

The key issues include when the energy-starved North might receive aid and who might offer it.

The United States presented an offer this week of energy and a security guarantee in exchange for scrapping the program. Japan and South Korea have offered to provide fuel oil, but Washington would not give aid under its proposal.

The North's own proposal reportedly would freeze its main nuclear facility at Yongbyon in exchange for aid, removal from Washington's list of state sponsors of terrorism and an end to U.S. economic sanctions.

North Korea said late Friday its offer covered all of its nuclear weapons programs and included a pledge not to make or test weapons during its freeze or transfer them to others.

That might have been a response to Washington's insistence that any settlement cover what U.S. officials say is a secret uranium-based program operated by Pyongyang in addition to its acknowledged program based on plutonium.

The North's statement, read by an official outside its embassy in Beijing, insisted some energy aid had to come from Washington, suggesting other conditions might be postponed if that took place.

``If the United States ... substantially participates in energy assistance, we clearly stated that we are willing to show flexibility concerning our demands on taking us off the list of terrorism sponsors and economic sanctions and blockade,'' the statement said.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue would not give a reason for calling off Saturday's closing ceremony, but said it did not reflect on the progress of talks. Earlier rounds have ended with closing ceremonies shown on Chinese television.

China believes the talks have shown the will of all six countries to solve the issue through dialogue, Zhang said.

``It has become the consensus of the various parties that as the first step of denuclearization, there should be an early kickoff of a nuclear freeze with corresponding measures,'' she said, using a term employed by diplomats for aid to the North.

``Of course there are differences on how to implement a nuclear freeze. It's a positive sign that the various sides want to study the various proposals.''

In Moscow, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Friday that Russia believes North Korea ``has the right to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes,'' so long as it cooperates with the International Atomic Energy Agency and rejoins the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the news agency Itar-Tass reported.

North Korea withdrew from the treaty in January 2003.
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