North Korea insisted yesterday that it would not dismantle its nuclear-weapons program until the US gives it civilian nuclear reactors, immediately casting doubt on a disarmament agreement reached a day earlier during international talks.
Washington reiterated its rejection of the demand and joined China in urging North Korea to stick to the agreement announced on Monday in which it pledged to abandon all its nuclear programs in exchange for economic aid and security assurances.
North Korea's surprise move underlined its unpredictable nature and deflated some optimism from the Beijing agreement, the first since negotiations began in August 2003.
"The US should not even dream of the issue of [North Korea's] dismantlement of its nuclear deterrent before providing [the reactors], a physical guarantee for confidence-building," the North Korean Foreign Ministry said in a statement carried by the Korean Central News Agency.
US officials dismissed the demand.
"This is not the agreement that they signed and we'll give them some time to reflect on the agreement they signed," US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in New York.
North Korea had demanded since the latest round of six-party talks began last week in the Chinese capital that it be given a light-water reactor -- a type less easily diverted for weapons use -- in exchange for disarming.
US officials opposed the idea, maintaining North Korea could not be trusted with any nuclear program. The issue was sidestepped in Monday's agreement, with participants saying they would discuss it later -- "at an appropriate time."
They also agreed to reconvene in early November to discuss the agreement's implementation.
North Korea, however, chose to immediately press the issue, in effect introducing a major condition on its pledge to disarm.
Japan swiftly joined the US in rejecting the demand.
"The Japanese side has continuously said that North Korea's demand is unacceptable," Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura told reporters after the North Korea's announcement.
China, North Korea's closest ally in the talks, urged Pyongyang to join the other negotiating partners in implementing their commitments in "a serious manner."
South Korea remained optimistic, with its point man on North Korea relations saying the country's latest statement was not likely to derail the Beijing agreement.
Other countries at the Beijing talks made clear that the reactor could only be discussed after the North rejoins the Non-Proliferation Treaty and accepts inspections from the International Atomic Energy Agency -- which North Korea pledged to do in Monday's agreement.
US State Department spokesman Adam Ereli emphasized earlier in Washington that the "appropriate time" for discussing the reactor meant only after North Korea complies with the conditions.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang (秦剛) was asked in Beijing whether North Korea might have misunderstood the order of commitments laid out in the statement on Monday.
"The common statement was adopted by all six parties and I don't think North Korea has any misunderstanding," Qin said.
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