Envoys say breakthrough at nuclear talks depends on North Korea

Sunday, February 11th 2007, 2:18 pm
By: News On 6

BEIJING (AP) _ Envoys at talks on dismantling North Korea's nuclear program said Monday that the possibility of a last-minute breakthrough rested solely with Pyongyang, dimming hopes for progress as the negotiations entered their final day.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill said the talks had snagged on the amount of energy assistance Pyongyang would receive as an inducement for disarming. But he said that a deal could still be reached during Monday's session.

``It is up to the North Koreans,'' Hill said. ``We have offered a way forward on a number of issues. They just need to make a decision.''

His comments were echoed by Japanese envoy Kenichiro Sasae, who said an agreement ``hangs greatly on the response, or final answer, that North Korea brings today.''

Seeking a last-minute deal, host China met separately with the North Korean and U.S. delegations Monday morning before the Americans and North Koreans were to sit down for one-on-one talks.

The current round of six-nation talks began on a promising note, after the United States and North Korea signaled a willingness to compromise. But since the talks entered the second day, envoys have said negotiations were becoming stuck on a single issue: energy assistance.

``We're not interested in an energy deal. We're interested in a de-nuclearization deal,'' Hill said Sunday, adding that he had a ``lengthy and very frank'' discussion with the North Koreans on the issue.

Negotiators had hoped the talks would result in North Korea's first concrete steps to dismantling its nuclear programs _ especially critical since Pyongyang's successful nuclear test in October.

Envoys have shown rising frustration at North Korea's intransigence, with the Japanese envoy on Sunday calling North Korean demands ``excessive.''

``This is the problem, and unless they change their thinking, an agreement will be difficult,'' Sasae said.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov expressed skepticism that the negotiators could reach agreement on how much assistance North Korea should receive.

South Korean and Japanese media reports gave varying accounts of how much energy the North was demanding, from 2 million kilowatts of electricity _ an amount equal to all of North Korea's current generating capacity _ to 2 million tons of heavy fuel oil.

Japan's Kyodo News agency cited unnamed sources as saying that North Korea had asked for 1 million tons of oil shipped annually before it dismantles its nuclear facilities and 2 million tons every year afterward.

North Korea was promised energy aid and security guarantees for a pledge in September 2005 at the talks to abandon its nuclear programs. But since then, talks of how to actually go through with those plans have snarled on other issues.

The issue that had previously stalled the talks _ U.S. financial restrictions against a Macau bank with North Korean accounts _ wasn't an obstacle this time.

Japan's Asahi Shimbun newspaper reported Monday that the U.S. told North Korea last month it is prepared to proclaim that $11 million in assets held by Pyongyang at the bank was legitimately earned, and not related to alleged North Korean crimes including counterfeiting and money laundering.

The move would allow the money to be released from accounts frozen after Washington blacklisted the bank in 2005.