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Peaceful Nuclear Use Expected to Dominate North Korea Talks

Multinational talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear weapons programs are scheduled to resume Tuesday in Beijing. A major topic of discussion is expected to be North Korea's insistence - which the United States finds suspect - on the right to pursue a peaceful nuclear energy program.

When the multinational North Korea nuclear talks recessed last month, the negotiators had reached an impasse over Pyongyang's assertion that it had the right to harness nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

North Korea insists that a peaceful nuclear program is any sovereign nation's right. But the light water reactor that Pyongyang wants other nations to build for it, ostensibly for peaceful purposes, can also be used to make nuclear weapons fuel. The United States, which does not trust North Korea to keep its promises, has said it wants the North to give up all nuclear programs, weapons-related or not.

Since the talks recessed in early August, South Korea and China, two of the six participants, have publicly sided with Pyongyang - under certain conditions.

South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon says a peaceful energy program in the North should begin only after Pyongyang dismantles all its weapons programs, rejoins the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and submits to full international nuclear safeguards.

"I am sure there will be restoration of confidence and transparency [in North Korea]," said Ban Ki-moon. "Then the right to peaceful use of nuclear energy should be given to North Korea. This, of course, is subject to negotiation."

South Korea has offered to transfer half a million kilowatts of electricity from its side of the border to North Korea, which suffers severe energy and food shortages, if it abandons nuclear weapons. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the chief U.S. delegate to the talks, says Pyongyang has been offered food and economic aid and diplomatic concessions as well. He says all five nations confronting North Korea, which also include Japan and Russia, support these offers.

These have been North Korea's public demands, along with security assurances from Washington. A few days ago Pyongyang said it would not dismantle its existing nuclear facilities unless a new light water reactor is built as compensation - essentially the agreement the North reached with the administration of then-President Bill Clinton in 1994.

Under that 1994 agreement, Pyongyang agreed to halt building nuclear weapons, but it continued to do so secretly. After a visit to Pyongyang earlier this month, Congressman Jim Leach expressed the distrust of the North that prevails in Washington.

"The Congress is very concerned for the trust issue," Congressman Leach said. "They feel that North Korea violated an agreement they made under the Clinton administration and that these are quite serious matters."

Daniel Pinkston, a senior scholar at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California, says the lack of trust between Pyongyang and Washington is mutual, and creates what he calls a dilemma of sequencing. He says Washington is afraid to offer benefits first, for fear North Korea will later cheat again, while Pyongyang has the opposite concern.

"They would dismantle their programs and if they don't get the benefits up front, the other side could renege on its commitment - 'Well, the Congress couldn't get through the appropriations, so we're sorry, we changed our mind' - and this is their concern.," Mr. Pinkston said.

U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill attempted to address that dilemma last month by promising progress based on the formula "words for words, actions for actions."

Unlike the previous three rounds of talks, the fourth round is open ended. South Korean officials describe the new format as a strength, as it allows adequate time for in-depth discussions.

But Kongdan Oh, a South Korea analyst with the Institute for Defense Analyses in the United States, says the new format also gives North Korea an advantage over the less patient United States.

"They are a very, very resilient and patient people," he said. "They are the ones who listen to [former leader] Kim Il Sung's and [current leader] Kim Jong Il's rambling statements for six hours. So in that sense, patience - you cannot even compare."

Many security experts agree that time is on Pyongyang's side. They say that with every day that passes without an agreement, North Korea has more time to produce weapons fuel - and possibly increase its arsenal of nuclear arms - giving it yet more bargaining power.