US says important N.Korea answer nuclear questions

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NEW YORK, Sep 23 (Reuters) US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said today it was ''very important'' North Korea answer many open questions about its nuclear programs as regional players prepare for talks on the matter this week.

Rice made the comment following media reports that a September 6 Israeli air strike inside Syria may have been triggered by concerns that North Korea and Syria were cooperating on a nuclear facility.

Speaking to reporters as she began a meeting in New York with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, Rice made no reference to that air strike but stressed how much the United States wishes to know about North Korea's nuclear programs.

''There are, frankly, a lot of questions that remain to be answered and we want to be able to answer questions about all aspects of the North Korean program. I think that's very important,'' said Rice, who met Yang on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.

US officials have declined comment on reports that the Israeli air strike was related to North Korea, but US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack today said Washington was highly concerned about weapons proliferation generally.

''We are definitely on this case,'' he said, without directly commenting on the Israeli air strike.

KCNA, the official North Korean news agency, yesterday reported that Kim Yong-nam, president of North Korea's parliament, met the director of the organizational department of the Syria's Baath Arab Socialist Party in Pyongyang. The Syrian, however, is not a top official and such talks are not unusual.

A new round of six-party talks among the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States to discuss ending North Korea's nuclear programs are scheduled to begin on Thursday in Beijing.

North Korea, which detonated a nuclear device in October last year and is believed by U.S. officials to have enough plutonium to make more than eight or nine atomic bombs, agreed in September 2005 to abandon all nuclear weapons and programs.

But progress on carrying out that agreement reached in the six-party talks has been slow.

Under a follow-on agreement struck on February 13, North Korea agreed to shut down its Yongbyon nuclear complex and to invite international inspectors back to verify this.

In exchange, the other members of the six-party talks pledged to provide it with 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil or its equivalent.

NEXT PHASE OF AGREEMENT Both those steps have now been taken, leading to the next phase of the agreement, under which North Korea has committed to disable all its nuclear facilities and to provide a complete declaration of all its nuclear programs.

In return, the other members of the six-party talks are to give it 950,000 tons of heavy fuel oil or its equivalent.

The six-party talks this week are expected to discuss how to sequence those steps. In a sign Washington hopes to make progress, the Bush administration this month told Congress it may give North Korea 25 million dollar worth of heavy fuel oil.

Rice's comments, however, appeared to suggest that there may be doubts on the US side about whether and when North Korea may provide a full declaration of its nuclear program.

The current nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula began in October 2002 when US officials said they believed North Korea had developed a uranium enrichment program, which could provide a second path to produce material for nuclear weapons in addition to its plutonium-based program.

US officials then said North Korea acknowledged such a program but now say Pyongyang has gradually moved away from that acknowledgment. Washington insists that North Korea address the question of uranium enrichment under the February 13 deal.

REUTERS AK PM0035

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