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US Envoy Says North Koreans Face 'Stark Choice' in Nuclear Discussions


United States Ambassador to South Korea Alexander Vershbow says it is possible to resolve financial issues holding up progress in dismantling North Korea's nuclear weapons. In an exclusive interview, Alexander Vershbow also tells VOA's Seoul correspondent Kurt Achin there will only be progress at this week's nuclear disarmament talks if Pyongyang shows what he calls "seriousness."

U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Alexander Vershbow told VOA Tuesday he was not surprised that North Korea opened this week's disarmament talks in Beijing with an extensive list of demands.

"[The] North Koreans are expressing [a] certain air of self-confidence, but I think they know that if they look at the world as it is, that they face a tough situation that's only going to get tougher," he said.

On Monday, Pyongyang's negotiator declared that North Korea's recent nuclear weapons test makes it a nuclear power. He said Pyongyang will not begin to dismantle its nuclear programs until the United Nations and United States end all sanctions against it.

The United States, Russia, Japan, South Korea, and China have tried for three years to persuade Pyongyang to end its nuclear capabilities in exchange for aid and diplomatic benefits.

Vershbow says bilateral meetings that began Tuesday on the sidelines of the six-party discussions may address some of the North's financial concerns.

Pyongyang returned to the nuclear talks after a 13-month boycott after the United States said it would discuss its financial sanctions on some North Korean enterprises.

He says the U.S. delegates will explain that the sanctions are to protect the banking system from alleged North Korean money laundering and counterfeiting.

"These measures were a response to North Korean illicit activities, and if they can take steps to assure us that those activities are going to be brought to an end, then this problem can be solved. It does take two to tango," he noted.

Vershbow says the goal of this week's Beijing talks is to shape a "road map" North Korea can follow in tandem with the U.S. and its partners toward ending its nuclear weapons programs.

The United States has insisted on dealing with the nuclear issue within the six-party talks, saying regional neighbors should share responsibility for such a major issue.

But within that framework, Washington has been willing to hold one-on-one sessions with North Korea. Vershbow told VOA, however, that the North declined a meeting before this week's gathering - although it has often demanded bilateral contact.

"We had indicated we were available as early as Sunday for some bilateral contacts but they chose only to meet with the Chinese," he said.

North Korea's test of a nuclear weapon in October and missile tests in July led to U.N. sanctions and a drop in food aid. Vershbow warns a lack of "seriousness" by the North in fulfilling its pledges to denuclearize will only create more hardship in a country that many experts say is on the verge of famine.

"Their economy, which is already in a bleak state, will only get worse. So, they have a fairly stark choice," he said.

U.S. officials have said Washington might seek to impose even tougher sanctions against North Korea if it does not comply with its many past pledges to give up nuclear arms.

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