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US Says North Korea Nuclear Talks at 'Difficult Moment' But Have Not Broken Down


The chief U.S. envoy to the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program says the long-running negotiations are at a "difficult moment" but that contacts with Pyongyang continue. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs Christopher Hill says he does not think there is an immediate risk that North Korea will restart its nuclear reactor. VOA's David Gollust reports from our Bureau at the United Nations.

Hill says the Chinese-sponsored negotiations aimed at getting North Korea to scrap its nuclear program are at a difficult phase. But he says dialogue with Pyongyang continues, despite its announced moves to reverse the disablement of its Yongbyon reactor complex.

The talks have reached an impasse over North Korea's failure to provide a verification program for the declaration of its nuclear holdings that it made in June.

Pyongyang contends that the United States has reneged on a promise to remove it from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. Washington says de-listing is dependent on a nuclear verification plan.

In another in series of apparent steps to roll back disarmament action, North Korea this week asked the International Atomic Energy Agency to remove seals and surveillance equipment at the Yongbyon nuclear complex.

But speaking with reporters, Assistant Secretary of State Hill said negotiations have not broken down. He said he sees no immediate potential for North Korea restarting the reactor that produced the plutonium for its small arsenal of nuclear weapons.

"Clearly, we are seeing a tough line in the last month from them," said Christopher Hill. "But again, I want to emphasize we are in touch with them through the New York channel, as we have been. So I would rather you think of this as a very rough and tumble moment in the negotiation process."

The problems coincide with reports that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il may have had a stroke. But Hill declined to link the two, saying that the decision-making process in Pyongyang has always been opaque.

The issue dominated meetings that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had Monday in New York with South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi.

Hill said the degree of consensus among the other parties to the Chinese-sponsored negotiations is gratifying, and that all the other participants advocate patience and are trying to work through the verification impasse.

Some analysts have suggested that North Korea may be trying to stall negotiations until President Bush leaves office. But Hill says North Korea's tough stance may have more to do with a reluctance to accept the kind of rigorous verification that the nuclear deal will require.

"I don't think the North Koreans are looking at a future administration and thinking somehow that would be easier or whatever," he said. "I think they understand that the best time to do it is to get it done now. I would really suggest to you to look more at the issue of the verification regime and the fact that North Korea is not a country that's given to opening itself up on issues. And so, they want to make sure that the verification is consistent with what they're prepared to do. And that's just part of a tough negotiation."

The U.S. envoy downplayed suggestions that the latest North Korean actions have brought the process to a crisis point. He said U.S. estimates are that if it followed through on recent threats, it would take Pyongyang months to restore its nuclear reprocessing capability and more than a year to revive the Yongbyon reactor itself.

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