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N. Korea Nuclear Weapons Talks Possible, American Envoy Reports

By James Brooke


North Korea is “fully committed” to return to nuclear disarmament talks in November and is showing “flexibility” on conditions for obtaining a light-water reactor, an American envoy said here Friday.

“They showed me flexibility on the light-water reactor issue,” the envoy to the North, Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, said in an interview.

Energy-poor North Korea has been seeking the reactor as the price for giving up its nuclear program. It seems to want the reactor partly to save face for returning to international nuclear controls, Richardson said, adding, “In my opinion, it is an important issue, but not a deal breaker.”

To make nuclear power in North Korea palatable to Washington, Richardson said, “they would be willing to have the U.S. participate in the fuel cycle at the front and back end.”

He added: “What that basically means is that the U.S. could control it, as well as the six parties.” The talks also include China, Russia, South Korea and Japan.

Bush administration officials have said they want North Korea to disarm first, then talk about the possibility of civilian nuclear power. At Washington’s insistence, work was halted two years ago on two nuclear power plants under construction on North Korea’s east coast.

Arms control experts fear that weapon-grade fuel could be extracted from materials at civilian plants. The issue of a civilian power plant became a stumbling block in the last round of talks in Beijing last month. A day after agreeing to a joint statement on nuclear disarmament, the North blasted the agreement, demanding a light-water fuel plant in advance and casting a cloud over future talks.

North Korea gave an “unconditional commitment” to return to the talks in early November, Richardson said after four days of meetings in the capital, Pyongyang. “They are returning to talks with a commitment to de-nuclearizing, but they want words for words, actions for actions,” he said. “The most important issue is the nuclear reactor.”

“It was the most positive tone I have seen” Richardson said of his trip, his fourth to Pyongyang. He said he met four times with Kim Kye Gwan, North Korea’s top nuclear negotiator, and had a two-hour meeting with Kang Sok Ju, a deputy foreign minister whom Richardson described as “the top foreign policy adviser to Kim Jong Il,” the North Korean leader.

In the meetings, the North Koreans also agreed to allow most foreign aid workers to stay in the country. Last month, North Korea had given a Dec. 31 deadline for foreigners working for private aid groups to leave and had ordered the World Food Program to change its aid from “humanitarian” to “development.”“The North Koreans basically reversed their position on the aid issue, basically the date of expulsion is now not operational,” Richardson said. The World Food Program will be allowed to keep 30 foreign aid workers, slightly fewer than their current allotment.