North Korea nuclear talks seek disablement steps

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BEIJING, Sep 30 (Reuters) The US envoy to talks on ending North Korea's nuclear programmes said today he was confident the session could set out a path that would see the North making good on its pledge to disable its atomic facilities.

North Korea, which tested a nuclear device last year, has since shut down and sealed its Yongbyon atomic plant in return for energy aid and moves towards bringing it out of diplomatic isolation, first steps in a breakthrough February agreement.

Now the six-party forum, hosted by China and involving the two Koreas, the United States, Japan and Russia, is pressing Pyongyang to disable its atomic facilities and make a complete declaration of related programmes.

''I'm pretty confident that we know what the next steps will be, and we have an understanding that will take us through to the end of the year with respect to disablement and declaration,'' U.S. envoy Christopher Hill told reporters.

''I think we know which way we're going.'' But he said it was still unclear whether the six countries could wind up their four days of negotiations today with a joint statement that would indicate agreement on next steps, in exchange for which impoverished North Korea is to receive a massive further injection of fuel aid.

On Friday US President George W Bush authorised 25 million dollars 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.

JAPAN BALKS 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.

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura was quoted as saying today Tokyo planned to extend economic sanctions against North Korea for another six months after current measures expire in mid-October.

Hill has stressed that for disablement -- a step towards complete dismantling -- to be meaningful, it must mean a process that would take about 12 months for North Korea to restart its reactors.

But he has also conceded that Washington and Pyongyang, the two main protagonists in the talks, have yet to agree entirely on the scope or meaning of disablement.

In 2002, North Korea was able to restart the Yongbyon reactor in two months, after a previous disarmament agreement fell apart.

South Korean negotiator Chun Yung-woo said the questions needing answers included how much plutonium North Korea produced and what it was used for.

''We confirmed their (North Korea's) strong willingness to allow inspections to answer questions on these suspicions,'' Chun was quoted by Yonhap news agency as saying.

''North Korea's position is to come clean on suspicions about its nuclear programme. (Pyongyang envoy) Kim Kye-gwan also realises it won't be helpful for the progress of six-party talks unless it answers them.'' REUTERS SZ AS1008

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