N Korea and US on track to talk again

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THE United States and North Korea were yesterday edging towards renewing talks on ending the crisis over Pyongyang's nuclear programme. President Bill Clinton has welcomed a North Korean offer to freeze activities at its nuclear sites during the discussions, but does not want to drop the threat of sanctions until North Korea is more specific about its intentions.

There was confusion after former president Jimmy Carter - whose nominally private visit to North Korea led to the breakthrough - said the US had stopped its effort at the United Nations to get support for sanctions. This was immediately denied in Washington, where officials say they need to know more about the regime's willingness to abandon its nuclear weapons programme.

In his final meeting with Mr Carter, President Kim Il Sung offered a further carrot to the US by agreeing to the establishment of a North Korean-US team to look for the bodies of Americans killed in the Korean War, fought between 1950 and 1953.

Although Mr Carter is in frequent contact with the White House, he appears to have been premature in his declaration to the North Koreans - aboard Mr Kim's yacht - that the US had abandoned 'sanctions activity' at the UN. Explaining the administration's position, Vice-President Al Gore said the US response depended on whether the North Koreans would 'stop reprocessing, stop refuelling, keep all those (UN) inspectors there and allow them to function'.

The next stage in defusing the crisis will be for a third round of US-North Korean talks to start while North Korea freezes its nuclear programme. A resolution of the crisis would probably involve the North Koreans receiving aid to buy a light-water reactor. This produces less weapons-grade plutonium than the 200MW reactor under construction at Yongbyon.

Robert Gallucci, the State Department official in charge of relations with North Korea, says that a third round of talks would cover all aspects of relations between the two countries. North Korea wants to normalise relations with the US and end its economic isolation as part of a deal which would include abandonment of its nuclear weapons programme.

The White House's main concession so far has been to put to one side its refusal to resume talks, after the North Koreans removed spent fuel rods from an 'experimental' reactor at Yongbyon - thus destroying evidence on whether or not they had diverted plutonium in 1989. US intelligence says they may have enough material to make one or more nuclear devices.

Mr Clinton wants to end the crisis, but does not want to invite Republican criticism that he is too quick to make concessions under pressure. He has to decide the size of reinforcements to be sent to South Korea to support the 37,000 US troops already there. Only a limited number of troops is being sent, but General Gary Luck, the US commander in South Korea, told Congress he would need 400,000 in the event of war.

In Washington there is a growing feeling that allowing the International Atomic Energy Agency to determine relations between the US and North Korea is a mistake. Donald Gregg, a Republican who was ambassador to South Korea under George Bush, says: 'The narrow emphasis, which translates into the IAEA making extraordinarily intrusive demands on the North Koreans, is hard for other states in the neighbourhood - China and Japan in particular - to understand or support.'

(Photograph omitted)