North Korea turns aside demands to halt nuclear weapons program

Official refuses to discuss security issues at opening of meeting with Japan


KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia - North Korea flatly rejected international demands that it abandon its nuclear weapons program in the opening session of normalization talks with Japan that began here yesterday.

The North Korean rejection, reflected in opening remarks and repeated during the first day of talks between the two countries, came two days after the conclusion of consultations in Mexico between leaders of the United States, South Korea and Japan, in which the three countries urged North Korea to unilaterally terminate its uranium-based bomb program.

"Japan expressed grave concern on nuclear issues, and we also referred to the statement issued last week by Japan, the United States and South Korea," a Japanese official here said. "To put it in one sentence, North Korea's response was they do not accept it at all."

Even before the two-day talks opened, a North Korean diplomat, Jong Thae Hwa, signaled his delegation's unwillingness to discuss security issues with Japan, saying, "We have come with no such preparations."

In a brief exchange of greetings, Jong set the tone for two days of difficult talks, adding, "Although we gathered here for talks on normalizing ties, certainly, we are far apart."

In a joint statement issued on the sidelines of the 21-nation Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum this weekend, the United States, South Korea and Japan warned that "North Korea's relations with the international community now rest on North Korea's prompt and visible actions to dismantle its program to produce highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons."

However, Japanese diplomats said that Jong blamed the United States' "hostile stance toward North Korea" for the region's security problems.

The sudden entry of security issues, particularly questions about nuclear weapons, comes after the surprise acknowledgment by Pyongyang, during talks with the United States last month, that it had been developing nuclear arms in secret, through a process of uranium enrichment.

The acknowledgment came after the United States confronted North Korea with intelligence evidence revealing the existence of the weapons program, which Washington said is in violation of a 1994 agreement between the two countries.

Washington has since urged Japan and South Korea, as well as China, to help it apply "maximum pressure" on North Korea to halt its uranium enrichment program. But none of North Korea's three neighbors has shown the kind of commitment that the Bush administration has sought on the nuclear issue.

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