BEIJING, Sept. 15 -- U.S. and North Korean diplomats acknowledged an irreconcilable deadlock Thursday in stalled nuclear disarmament talks, throwing into doubt the future of Chinese-sponsored six-party negotiations that have been under way for more than two years without result.
The stalemate, over North Korea's demand for a light-water nuclear reactor to produce electricity, brought the current round of discussions to a rancorous standstill after three days of fruitless arguing. None of the six nations involved appeared ready to abandon the negotiations immediately, however, nor could anyone outline how to keep them going given the clear-cut U.S.-North Korean disagreement.
"We're in a bit of a standoff at this point," said Christopher Hill, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs and the chief U.S negotiator. "We'll have to see where this leads."
The Bush administration has suggested that, should the talks break down permanently, the next step could be referring North Korea's nuclear weapons program to the United Nations Security Council in a search for economic and other sanctions. Other nations involved, including China with its veto power, have indicated they would not favor such a course, and North Korea has warned it would consider it tantamount to war.
Chinese diplomats, who as sponsors play the role of referee in the six-party talks, were meeting further with their North Korean counterparts to see how the discussions might be salvaged. Hill said he has scheduled a meeting Friday with the Chinese diplomats to see whether they saw any room for maneuver.
But he made it clear that neither side seemed ready to budge. "I think it's fair to say we have a rather major disagreement on this point," Hill said.
A noisy breakdown would represent a major setback for the Beijing government, which since August 2003 has taken a prominent role in seeking a diplomatic solution to one of Asia's most intractable problems. Barring a dramatic turnabout by North Korea's leadership, however, it was difficult to see how the gap could be bridged, diplomats said.
"The talks are deadlocked," said the chief Japanese delegate, Kenichiro Sasae. "The differences between positions remain large and there are no prospects of agreement."
A North Korean spokesman, Hyun Hak Bong, issued a statement saying his government's demand for a light-water reactor for energy production was a litmus test for whether the United States has abandoned hostility toward Pyongyang and is genuinely willing to peacefully coexist with the system run by Kim Jong Il, the North Korean leader.
"Providing a light-water reactor is a matter of principle for building trust," his statement said. "The United States says it cannot give us a light-water reactor no matter what. It is telling us to give up the nuclear first without doing its part."
The Bush administration has demanded that North Korea relinquish not only its nuclear weapons program but also its ambition to build a nuclear reactor to produce electricity. The reasoning, Hill said, is that North Korea proved it cannot be trusted on this point when in the 1990s it converted a research reactor to a source of weapons-grade plutonium.
Hill also said such a plant is out of the question because North Korea expelled U.N. weapons inspectors at the end of 2002 and, in January 2003, withdrew from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The nation's energy needs can be supplied by a South Korean-proposed program that is included in the Chinese-drafted accord under discussion here, he added.