Ahead of new nuclear talks, North Korea lashes out at Japan

SEOUL — As representatives from five regional powers converged in Beijing on Sunday to join what is possibly the Bush administration’s final major effort to revive a nuclear disarmament deal with North Korea, Pyongyang vowed to ignore Japan at the talks.

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The U.S. assistant secretary of state, Christopher Hill, will use the Beijing talks, scheduled to begin Monday, to try to persuade North Korea to allow outside experts to take nuclear waste samples for testing, considered a key procedure in determining the extent of the reclusive Communist country’s past nuclear activities.

Hill held preliminary talks with his North Korean counterpart, Kim Kye Gwan, in Singapore last week and later said he expected the Beijing conference to be «difficult.» On Sunday, Kim Sook, the South Korean envoy to the six-nation talks, said: «I am not very optimistic.»

In its final weeks in power, the Bush administration is struggling to complete the so-called «second phase» of a program working toward Washington’s ultimate goal of dismantling North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs.

The plan for that phase called for North Korea to disable — but not destroy — its main nuclear complex north of Pyongyang and to agree to a method of verifying its past nuclear activities in return for one million tons of fuel aid and its removal from Washington’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Hill’s last-ditch efforts face serious hurdles in Pyongyang, where analysts say the regime is more interested in dealing with the new administration of President-elect Barack Obama, and also in Tokyo, where disgruntled policy makers have refused to join Washington and others in shipping fuel aid to North Korea.

In a rebuff to Washington’s approach, Japan has refused to donate its share of 200,000 tons of aid fuel unless North Korea first addresses the kidnappings of more than a dozen Japanese citizens in the 1970s and ’80s.

Washington and Seoul are now talking with countries like Australia and New Zealand about shouldering Japan’s share.

Only half of the promised one million tons of fuel has been delivered. North Korea in turn is slowing down the disablement of its nuclear complex in Yongbyon, where it has produced plutonium for weapons.

Barring a dramatic breakthrough in Beijing this week, officials in Seoul say that the task of completing the second phase would be handed over to the Obama administration.

«We will neither treat Japan as a party to the talks nor deal with it even if it impudently appears in the conference room, lost to shame,» a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman was quoted as saying Saturday by the official Korean Central News Agency.

North Korea has issued similar threats in the past. China and Russia are also party to the talks, which began after Pyongyang withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 2003.

Since Hill became Washington’s front man on North Korea in 2005, he has cobbled together key agreements with North Korea, including the September 2005 deal that laid out a road map toward the North’s nuclear disarmament. But he has stumbled over Pyongyang’s tactic of giving vague commitments to win U.S. concessions and then retracting them, saying that nothing was written down.

The latest case in point involves the dispute over nuclear samples. In October, Washington announced that the North had agreed to allow sampling, and removed the North from its terrorism blacklist. But a month later, the North said that it had never given such a promise and that Washington had no written document to prove otherwise.

Washington seeks a comprehensive method of verifying North Korea’s nuclear history. It wants, for example, to check whether North Korea has a uranium-enrichment program and whether it has proliferated nuclear technology to countries like Syria.

But North Korea insists that separate, more detailed verification systems be renegotiated in line with progress in the disarmament talks. It intends to keep key parts of its nuclear programs in the dark so it can use them as leverage in future talks, analysts say.