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N. Korea Evades Questions Concerning Nuclear Program - 2003-04-28

North Korea has again evaded questions about its nuclear weapons program at a meeting with South Korean officials, and instead sought more economic aid from Seoul. So far, the inter-Korean talks have made no progress in defusing tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

South Korean news media say the North's delegates refused to give a specific answer about the Pyongyang's nuclear capability, at the second day of cabinet-level talks in Pyongyang. South Korean officials pressed their northern counterparts once again Monday, asking them point blank about Pyongyang's alleged admission to the United States last week that it possessed nuclear weaponry.

South Korean Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun says, if true, that would mean Pyongyang is in violation of a 1992 inter-Korean agreement to keep the peninsula nuclear free.

According to a South Korean pool news report, the Northern delegates said Pyongyang will only discuss the nuclear issue with the United States. The North Koreans tried to focus the talks on economic aid.

Over the past three years, capitalist South Korea has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on aid and economic development projects for its impoverished communist neighbor. But that aid may be about to diminish unless the nuclear issue is resolved.

"Continuing to give economic aid despite the North Korean announcement of nuclear possession is increasingly difficult and definitely against public opinion here," says Kim Tae Woo, a scholar with the Korea Institute of Defense Analyses in Seoul.

The talks were intended to focus on economic links, but have been overshadowed by the nuclear issue following last week's talks in Beijing between North Korea, China and the United States. During those talks, U.S. officials say the North Koreans admitted Pyongyang has at least one nuclear weapon.

North Korea isn't commenting on that alleged admission - nor is it offering any more details on what it calls its "bold proposal" to made to the United States last week to resolve the nuclear issue.

Washington said last October that North Korea admitted having a secret nuclear weapons program, in violation of several accords. Since then, Pyongyang has pulled out of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and restarted idle nuclear facilities.

North Korea has also issued a stream of increasingly bellicose rhetoric in recent months. The country's official news agency reports national leader Kim Jong Il visited a military unit on Sunday. He says North Korean soldiers would become "human bombs" to repel any outside attack.

North Korea says it will only scrap its nuclear ambitions in exchange for a nonaggression treaty with the United States. The Bush Administration rules that out, but says some form of security agreement may be possible. But Washington emphasizes it will not be blackmailed or intimidated by threats.