North Korea says it will end nuclear tests

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The Independent Online

Tensions in the North Korean nuclear crisis eased yesterday after the famously eccentric leader of the reclusive Stalinist state reportedly apologised to China for testing nuclear weapons.

According to media reports in South Korea, Kim Jong Il expressed regret over his country's nuclear test to a visiting Chinese envoy, in what appears to be a remarkable softening of his country's position. Mr Kim also indicated that North Korea would return to long-stalled six-nation talks and would not test any more nuclear weapons, as long as Washington promised to scale back its campaign to isolate the country financially.

Mr Kim told the Chinese delegation that "he is sorry about the nuclear test", South Korea's Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported. China reportedly threatened to step up the pressure on impoverished North Korea in coming weeks if it tried to test another nuclear weapon or if it refused to restart six-party talks.

The developments came during a visit by a veteran Chinese negotiator - the former foreign minister Tang Jiaxuan - to Pyongyang on Thursday. "Fortunately my visit this time has not been in vain," Mr Tang said as he met the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, who was in Beijing to urge the Chinese government to increase pressure on North Korea over its nuclear ambitions. She described the test as a "strong provocation".

Chosun Ilbo quoted Mr Kim as saying: "If the US gives in to a certain degree, we will also do so, whether it's bilateral talks or six-party talks."

China is crucial in helping to persuade the North to disarm, as it is the isolated communist nation's main trading partner.

Ms Rice met Mr Tang in the Chinese leadership compound of Zhongnanhai, just hours after the former Chinese foreign minister returned from Pyongyang to deliver what was believed to have been a "very strong message" after last week's nuclear test.

A Chinese diplomatic source said Mr Tang had been told that North Korea would not conduct another nuclear test."I understand he expressed clearly there was no plan to conduct nuclear tests," South Korea's Yonhap news agency quoted the source as saying.

Ms Rice, who is on a tour of east Asia to rally support for sanctions, said Mr Tang had made clear to North Korea that Beijing would fully implement the UN sanctions. This may have helped bring about a softening of the North Korean position. The nuclear test earned unanimous UN Security Council condemnation and led to economic and weapons sanctions.

The developments look like a diplomatic coup for Beijing, North Korea's only significant ally. The Chinese were furious at the decision to test a nuclear weapon on 9 October. China's large amounts of energy and food aid to almost-bankrupt North Korea are believed to be helping to prop up the regime and Beijing wields huge influence there.

China's Foreign Minister, Li Zhaoxing, said Mr Tang and the North Koreans had discussed ways of renewing talks about getting rid of Pyongyang's nuclear programmes. "Everyone discussed how to restart progress in the six-party talks as quickly as possible," Mr Li said.

The talks, hosted by Beijing, include North and South Korea, the United States, Japan, Russia and China. They have not taken place in nearly a year since Washington imposed restrictions on Pyongyang's external financing.

The Chinese Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao, again underlined Beijing's view that negotiations were preferable to strong-arm tactics. "It's in the interest of all parties to resolve the Korean nuclear issue through diplomacy and dialogue. Apart from that, I can see no other choice," he said.

Mr Tang believes Washington should now take a more flexible attitude when dealing with North Korea, but Ms Rice said the restrictions would remain. The US also believes North Korea is responsible for making counterfeit $100 dollar bills and spreading them around the world.

Ms Rice said China had made clear that it would be "scrupulous" about inspections on the border with North Korea, despite fears in Beijing about any action that could cause its neighbour to collapse.