Japan will offer energy assistance to North Korea at next week's six-way talks over the North's atomic ambitions, but only if the communist state freezes its nuclear programs, Japanese media said yesterday.
Tokyo, which had stopped short of making such an offer in previous discussions, has decided to do so out of concern that if no progress were made at the upcoming round, the momentum for the talks would be lost, the reports said.
Beijing is hosting the third round of six-way talks from Wednesday until Saturday involving both Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the US.
"If there are no results at the third round, then the meaning of the six-way talks will be questioned," a senior Japanese foreign ministry official was quoted as saying by the Mainichi Shimbun daily. "We are preparing an environment in which North Korea can more easily make concessions."
At the last round of talks, South Korea, China and Russia offered energy aid in return for the North's proposal to freeze its nuclear activities. But Japan and the US only expressed "understanding" for Pyongyang's proposition.
The change in Japan's position follows last month's summit in the North Korean capital between Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.
According to Koizumi, Kim had offered to freeze his country's nuclear activities accompanied by verification.
Japanese media said Tokyo would only offer aid in line with Washington's policy that any freezing of the North's programs must be a first step towards dismantling its plutonium and suspected uranium enrichment projects.
A senior US official said this week Washington was open to Pyongyang freezing its nuclear activities and to others rewarding it for this step, but only if the North agreed to complete, verifiable and irreversible elimination of its programs.
The North has said such a precondition was unacceptable.
Efforts by North Korea towards resolving the issue of Japanese abducted by its agents in the past would also be a condition for Japanese assistance, media reports said.
North Korea's delegation to working level six-party talks arrived in Beijing yesterday and the other delegations were due later in the weekend, China's Xinhua news agency reported.
The working level talks, set for tomorrow and Tuesday, would lay a foundation for the senior-level discussions, which open behind closed doors on Wednesday at the exclusive Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing.
The past two rounds of six-way talks, held last August and in February this year, have failed to make much progress because of the gap between the key protagonists, North Korea and Washington.
The crisis over the North's nuclear arms programs erupted in October 2002, when US officials said North Korea had disclosed it was working on a secret program to enrich uranium for weapons, in violation of an international agreement.
Pyongyang has since denied it has a uranium enrichment program, but early last year threw out UN nuclear inspectors, withdrew from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and restarted a mothballed nuclear reactor from which weapons-grade plutonium can be extracted.
China has called for "reasonable expectations" on the complex issues at the latest round of talks, while Russia warned not to expect a breakthrough.