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N. Korea takes wraps off nuclear agenda

Washington/Seoul, Oct. 17 (Reuters): The United States said North Korea had admitted running a secretive nuclear-weapons programme, a disclosure that surprised Asian neighbours but which experts said showed Pyongyang’s desire for talks with Washington.

The United States said yesterday North Korea, confronted with US evidence, had acknowledged it was operating a uranium-enrichment programme in violation of a 1994 non-proliferation pact that brought the peninsula back from the brink of crisis.

The assertion from Washington drew demands from Seoul and Tokyo that the reclusive Communist state abide by all nuclear pledges and open its facilities to inspections.

Diplomats and academic analysts said an impasse could scupper inter-Korean rapprochement and kill embryonic economic reforms in North Korea, while poisoning an already bitter election-year debate in South Korea over policy toward the North.

But others, including a top aide to South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, said the admission by North Korea two weeks after it reversed decades of denial and owned up to abducting Japanese nationals was another sign Pyongyang wanted serious talks.

US officials said special envoy James Kelly had presented the North Koreans with documentation about the nuclear activities during an October 3-5 visit to Pyongyang and the North Koreans had finally acknowledged conducting a secret weapons programme.

Kelly’s visit was the first since US President George W. Bush took office and dubbed North Korea part of an “axis of evil” with Iraq and Iran. North Korean media later accused Kelly of making “very arrogant and threatening remarks” in Pyongyang.

Yim Sung-joon, top South Korean presidential adviser on national security and foreign policy, told reporters Kim would take up the issue with Bush and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi at a three-way summit next week in Mexico.

“The President views this as a grave matter and it is his position that it is unacceptable under any circumstances for North Korea to develop nuclear weapons,” Yim told reporters.

South Korea’s unification ministry said in a statement it would raise the nuclear issue in ministerial talks between the two Koreas set to start in Pyongyang on October 19.

But he added that South Korea saw North Korea’s surprising confession as part of a quest for dialogue, the latest of several dramatic steps Pyongyang has taken this year to improve ties with the outside world and overhaul its sickly, aid-dependent economy.

“The government is paying close attention to this frank confirmation of nuclear suspicions during special envoy Kelly's visit to North Korea and we regard it as a sign North Korea is willing to resolve this problem through dialogue,” Yim said.

One Pyongyang-based diplomat agreed, telling Reuters the nuclear disclosure “could reflect a need to bring these discussions from political rhetoric to a technical level so perhaps both sides can make progress on specific issues”. Japan received a shock admission and an apology from North Korea last month for the abductions of more than a dozen Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s to teach Japanese to North Korean spies. The confession opened the way for normalisation talks.

A second diplomat in the North Korean capital said he thought Washington’s nuclear revelation was a US tactic to pressure Pyongyang after Kelly’s trip failed to make headway. “The North Koreans are de facto ready to make some concessions, even substantial concessions, but they want some reward,” he said by telephone.

A senior US official told Reuters in Washington that the Bush administration believed the North’s activities had “effectively nullified the 1994 Agreed Framework”, a deal under which North Korea promised to freeze its nuclear arms programme. But US officials said the administration was consulting Congress and had made no decision on the next steps in its relations with North Korea.

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