China proposed a compromise Friday in the U.S.-North Korean standoff on nuclear disarmament negotiations, suggesting that North Korea be accorded the right in principle to develop peaceful nuclear energy in the future, diplomats said.
The Chinese suggestion received a cool response from North Korea, which insisted on carrying out the civilian part of its nuclear development program without interruption. "We will just do it our way," said a North Korean spokesman, Hyun Hak Bong, reading a statement to reporters. "For us, we cannot stop our way of peaceful nuclear activities for one month."
Hyun said North Korea must be given a light-water nuclear reactor as an integral part of any deal to dismantle its nuclear weapons program. The reactor could be co-managed and submitted to international inspection, he said in the statement, but its establishment cannot be replaced by a promise for the future.
So far, the Bush administration has adamantly refused North Korea's demand for a nuclear reactor for electricity production, the major impasse in this round of six-nation negotiations that have been conducted sporadically under Chinese sponsorship for more than two years.
The chief U.S. delegate to the talks, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, declined to speak with reporters after the Chinese issued their proposal. He was seeking instructions from Washington on how to react, diplomats said.
On Thursday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she thought the status of negotiations would become clear "in the next five or so days."
"The North Koreans have a way of moving the goal posts all the time," Rice said in an interview with the New York Post. "And they've apparently come back determined that they have to have a light-water reactor. Well, we're, you know, we're not going there."
Hill has said North Korean electricity needs can be met more swiftly and cheaply by South Korea, which has proposed repairing the electrical grid between the countries and supplying power to its northern neighbor. The United States believes North Korea cannot be trusted with a light-water reactor, U.S. officials said, because the installation could be converted for weapons production.
According to U.S. intelligence agencies, North Korean scientists in the 1990s used a research reactor at a nuclear facility at Yongbyon to make weapons-grade plutonium and now have enough for six or more nuclear bombs. North Korea announced in February that it possessed nuclear arms, but no weapons tests have been detected.
China, as host and sponsor of the talks, called on diplomats from the other five countries -- North and South Korea, Russia, Japan and the United States -- to confer with their capitals overnight and convene Saturday to discuss the new proposal. It was unclear whether North Korea's public statement represented its final official stand.
In announcing the new proposal, the Chinese Foreign Ministry did not reveal its details. Russia's chief delegate, Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Alexeyev, described the new suggestion as an attempt to bridge the U.S.-North Korean gap by mentioning a North Korean right to peaceful use of nuclear energy in the future, presumably meaning after North Korea's nuclear weapons program has been dismantled and the country has rejoined the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the U.N. nuclear inspection regime.
"We think this new document is balanced in character, and it includes North Korea's right to peaceful atomic energy and the possibility . . . of building a light-water nuclear reactor," Russian news agencies quoted Alexeyevas saying.