N. Korea Balks at Weapons Discussion

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 22, 2006

BEIJING, Dec. 21 -- North Korea is refusing to engage in negotiations on ending its nuclear weapons program until the United States lifts punitive measures imposed to halt Pyongyang's alleged money-laundering operations, the chief U.S. negotiator said Thursday.

Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill, after what he described as a frustrating day of discussions, said he would give the Chinese-sponsored talks another day in hopes that the North Korean negotiators received last-minute instructions from Pyongyang to change their stand. But in any case, he said, he will be making plane reservations to head back to Washington on Saturday.

Hill's comments indicated there has been little progress -- and little hope of any -- in the latest round of on-and-off discussions designed to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program in return for diplomatic recognition and economic aid. Adding to the pessimism, Japan's chief negotiator, Kenichiro Sasae, described the talks as stalemated and said, "There is no prospect for a breakthrough," the Associated Press reported.

The six-party talks -- which involve the United States, North Korea, China, Japan, South Korea and Russia -- resumed Monday after a 13-month boycott by North Korea over the U.S. Treasury Department's blacklisting of Macau-based Banco Delta Asia. U.S. officials alleged that the bank was being used to inject counterfeit $100 bills and drug money from North Korea into the financial system.

Under pressure from China, the North Korean government agreed Oct. 30 to return to the talks. In return, the United States agreed to parallel discussions on the punitive measures against Banco Delta Asia and its North Korean account holders. A Treasury Department team met Tuesday and Wednesday with North Korean banking officials and set more meetings for January in the United States.

But since the nuclear talks opened Monday, Hill said, North Korean negotiators have been under "strict instructions" not to engage in official discussions on the nuclear dispute until the banking measures are lifted. This has prevented progress on the main subject, which he described as concrete steps by North Korea to take down its nuclear weapons program, as it pledged to do in an agreement in principle reached in September 2005.

"The purpose of being here was to discuss the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula," Hill said. "I want to emphasize I'm not here to talk about [Banco Delta Asia]. That's not what I do."

At a news conference in Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the talks must remain focused on the issue of denuclearization.

"Diplomacy sometimes takes time, but we should not be diverted somehow by an issue that is clearly in another lane and is clearly being dealt with in a way that the North Koreans themselves asked that it be dealt with," Rice said.

Although the North Koreans have cited the U.S. banking measures as the main obstacle to nuclear negotiations, several diplomats said the overriding issue is whether North Korea genuinely has decided to forgo nuclear weapons. The question is particularly relevant, they said, since the North Korean government tested a nuclear device Oct. 9 and subsequently declared itself a nuclear power.

In public statements, North Korea has said it needs the nuclear weapons because it faces a hostile policy from the United States. Dropping the measures against Banco Delta Asia, a pro-North Korean newspaper in Japan suggested Thursday, would be proof that the Bush administration is willing to end the hostility and thus would make nuclear negotiations possible.

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