US, N Korea far apart as negotiators meet in Beijing

REUTERS , BEIJING

Wed, Aug 27, 2003 - Page 1

North Korea mixed smiles with threats and China urged patience yesterday as the US and its allies huddled to coordinate their positions on the eve of talks over North Korea's nuclear crisis.

The two protagonists, North Korea and the US, stand far apart before the six-country talks that are a result of months of frantic diplomacy.

Washington is demanding the unconditional and verifiable scrapping of Pyongyang's nuclear program before making concessions and North Korea wants security guarantees before dismantling.

Host China -- keen to keep the dispute from escalating into a destabilizing conflict or a refugee crisis on its northeast flank -- called for respect and calm from all sides.

"The nuclear issue is very complicated and acute, and it is impossible to solve all problems through one or two discussions. Moreover, other issues may arise during negotiations," the official Xinhua news agency quoted Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wang Yi (王毅) as saying.

"China hopes all parties will ... show sincerity to solve the issue, adopt a calm and patient attitude, respect each other, conduct consultations on an equal footing, seek common ground and reduce disputes," China's chief negotiator said.

As part of China's continuous efforts to reassure the North that its security fears will be addressed, Wang said China opposed pressure, sanctions or war.

Flying into Beijing airport, North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Yong-il smiled, waved and clasped his hands above his head before being whisked away in a three-car motorcade.

But in a sign of the tensions on the Korean peninsula, North Korea renewed a threat to pull out of student games in the South over anti-North demonstrations.

Diplomats from South Korea, the US, Japan and Russia arrived in the Chinese capital on Monday. Ten months into the crisis, the only real consensus among the five is that the Korean Peninsula should remain free of nuclear weapons.

Wang's remarks underscore that most participants expect little more from the talks than agreement to meet again.

"I think it would be very good if out of these talks there was an agreement for additional talks," said Wendy Sherman, a former Bill Clinton administration adviser on North Korea.

The US said last October that North Korea had admitted to a clandestine program to enrich uranium to build nuclear weapons, violating agreements with Washington as well as its international commitments.

The isolated communist state has since thrown out UN nuclear inspectors, become the first state to pull out of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and restarted its Yongbyon plant, sparking fears it may have reprocessed spent fuel rods there into plutonium for weapons.

As the parties prepare for talks at the exclusive Diaoyutai state guest house from today to Friday, the US and North Korea remain poles apart.

Pyongyang has demanded concessions, including a non-aggression pact and an end to what it perceives as a hostile policy from Washington, before agreeing to anything on its nuclear program.

The US, saying it will not give in to blackmail, wants the unconditional, verifiable and irreversible scrapping of the North's nuclear program before budging on any concessions.

Japan and, to a lesser degree, South Korea lean with the US. Seoul has kept aid flowing to the North throughout the crisis and grows nervous when Washington talks tough.