North Korea nuclear talks shift focus to energy aid

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BEIJING, Sep 29 (Reuters) Talks on ending North Korea's nuclear ambitions shifted focus today to US energy assistance for the impoverished state, despite a cooling of expectations that the session could set targets for disarmament.

US President George W Bush on Friday authorised 25 million dollar in aid for the North, which would provide up to 50,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil, as a reward for Pyongyang's commitment to disable its nuclear facilities by the end of the year.

''I think this morning, there's going to be a lot of discussion on the energy assistance, including the fuel oil,'' chief US negotiator Christopher Hill told reporters in Beijing, which is hosting the talks.

''The fact is, it is all ready to go, and that's now a technical question, but I think it's sometime in October.'' North Korea, which tested a nuclear device last year, shut down and sealed its Yongbyon nuclear plant and allowed UN monitors back to the site in July.

Those were its first steps in carrying out a breakthrough agreement reached in February at the six-party talks, which group the two Koreas, the United States, Japan, Russia and China.

But it must now disable its atomic facilities and make a declaration of all of its nuclear programmes, in return for a huge injection of fuel aid and an end to diplomatic isolation.

China and South Korea have delivered initial fuel shipments and Russia is expected to do so too, but Japan has indicated it will not participate unless North Korea addresses the issue of Japanese citizens the North abducted in the 1970s and 1980s.

''The issue of abductions by the DPRK poses a serious challenge to human dignity,'' Japanese Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura told reporters at the United Nations yesterday.

''It is essential that the international community send a strong message calling for the earliest resolution of the abduction issue.

ROAD MAP Hill had initially said this round of talks would aim to set targets for disablement to the end of the year. He later scaled back expectations, saying negotiators hoped to agree to a ''road map'' at the session, which could wrap up today, a day earlier than expected.

But he stressed that disablement of the nuclear facilities, a step towards complete dismantling, had to mean that it would be a long and costly process for Pyongyang to restart its reactors.

''We have a common definition, which is the idea that if there were a return -- and of course we're not planning a return -- to plutonium production, that it should be made difficult by process of disablement,'' Hill said.

''Our definition of difficult is several months and we would argue it should be 12 months.'' In 2002, North Korea was able to restart the Yongbyon reactor in two months, after a previous disarmament agreement fell apart.

South Korea said the issue of North Korea's nuclear ambitions should not be allowed to drag on.

''This problem, if not resolved soon, will seriously undermine the NPT regime,'' said South Korean Foreign Minister Song Min-soon, referring to the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.

''It also has significant implications for peace and security in Northeast Asia and beyond,'' he told the U.N.

General Assembly.

REUTERS SW HS0858

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