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Diplomats Urge US-North Korea Dialogue - 2003-01-18

Top international diplomats say North Korea and the United States must start talking and resolve their nuclear dispute and also start addressing a looming humanitarian crisis.

United Nations special envoy, Maurice Strong, said the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula is overshadowing a terrible food shortage that threatens six to eight-million people in isolated, impoverished North Korea. "There is no question that assistance is a life and death matter for many people," he said.

Mr. Strong, who spoke in Beijing Saturday after several days of talks in North Korea, said the nuclear dispute could "get out of hand" if Washington and Pyongyang don't start listening to each other. "They are talking past each other rather than to each Other. So there is a serious and ominous risk that the crisis could escalate," he said. "The problem is a breakdown of trust and communication."

Mr. Strong, on a special mission for the Secretary General of the United Nations, said the positions of the two sides are not far apart.

Meantime, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov left Beijing Saturday headed for several days of talks in Pyongyang. He said he will speak with the North Korean foreign minister and other officials. The veteran negotiator said his mission is to listen carefully to North Korea's point of view. He said there are ways for the two sides to work things out. "All the sides are keeping some room for improvement, and some doors open for further negotiations," he said. "And this is what we have to explore in more depth."

Moscow has called for a nuclear free Korean Peninsula, along with security guarantees and economic help for North Korea.

Both Washington and Pyongyang have said they want a dialogue, but neither has met the other's conditions for such talks.

This month, Washington formally offered to hold talks on how North Korea would dismantle its nuclear program. But Pyongyang rejected the offer because it did not come with formal security guarantees, just verbal assurances that Washington has no hostile intentions.

The crisis erupted in October when the United States said North Korea had a secret nuclear weapons program. Pyongyang has since denied this, but moved to restart nuclear facilities idled under a 1994 agreement with the United States.

North Korea also sparked deep global concern by pulling out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, expelling U.N. nuclear monitors and threatening to resume ballistic missile tests.