Caution over N Korea's intentions

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The Independent Online
AMERICAN and North Korean officials may meet in Geneva within a fortnight after Pyongyang's agreement to freeze its nuclear programme, but the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister was merely the most prominent of several figures expressing caution yesterday over the apparent breakthrough.

Alexander Panov said Russia welcomed the resumption of high-level contacts between North Korea and the United States, but doubted they would be successful. 'Unfortunately, past experience of bilateral contacts with North Korea hardly inspires much hope,' he said. 'Their talks with the US were disrupted three times . . . and each time tensions increased.'

Mr Panov was seeking to talk up Russia's proposal for an international conference on the Korean nuclear crisis, which he said should be considered instead of sanctions if the Geneva talks failed. Announcing North Korea's formal agreement to a freeze on Wednesday night, President Bill Clinton conceded that this was 'a new opportunity to find a solution' rather than the solution itself.

Pyongyang has made three concessions demanded by the US. It will not extract plutonium from fuel rods recently taken out of a 5 megawatt reactor at the Yongbyon nuclear complex, it will not refuel the reactor and it will allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the nuclear arm of the United Nations, to remain on the site. But by limiting itself to these demands, Washington has implicitly accepted that it will never know whether North Korea has diverted plutonium in the past. The Clinton administration's strategy now appears aimed at ensuring that even if Kim Il Sung's regime has one or two crude nuclear devices, as the CIA believes, it is dissuaded from producing any more.

North Korea, which last year gave notice to quit the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), only to suspend its withdrawal at the last moment, left the IAEA last week. A spokesman for the agency said this did not absolve Pyongyang from its obligation to submit to inspection under the treaty, but added that the inspectors in North Korea were being allowed into only one of the country's seven declared nuclear sites. Video cameras at the other six will soon require fresh batteries and tape.

Mr Clinton said the US is prepared to talk with Pyongyang about 'the full range of security, political and economic issues', including possible diplomatic recognition. It is not clear whether this will include earlier US demands for full inspection of North Korea's nuclear facilities, including two undeclared sites spotted by spy satellites. Robert Gallucci, the Assistant Secretary of State who will lead the US side at the Geneva talks, met the IAEA in Vienna yesterday for talks on nuclear safeguards.

(Photograph omitted)

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