N Korea pledges to resume nuclear talks

NORTH KOREA yesterday said it would resume high-level talks with the US on its nuclear programme on 5 August. Talks were interrupted earlier this month by the death of the country's president, Kim Il Sung.

The announcement came as a relief to those who feared the takeover of Kim Jong Il might disrupt the negotiations and set the already secretive country on an even more hostile, isolationist path. It is unclear, however, whether the North Koreans are ready to negotiate away their nuclear trump- card with the US, or whether they are again playing for time.

The US had placed a high priority on an early resumption of the talks, as North Korea has 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods sitting in a cooling pond and which, if reprocessed, could yield enough plutonium for six atomic bombs.

The rods, unloaded from the reactor in the Yongbyong nuclear facility in May, are being periodically inspected by two experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency, but Pyongyang says that by September it will have to take them out of the cooling ponds.

Western scientists see little technical justification for such a deadline, and some regard it as yet another tactic in North Korea's nuclear blackmailing of the US and its allies.

US and North Korean negotiators met in New York on Thursday to discuss a resumption of the talks, which will be held in Geneva. The US wanted to reconvene on 1 August, but North Korea said it needed more time to prepare for the talks, even though it will be sending the same negotiators as sat down on 8 July for the single day of talks before the announcement of Kim Il Sung's death.

The US is offering substantial economic aid, and eventual diplomatic recognition, if Pyongyang maintains its self-declared 'freeze' on its nuclear programme and allows inspectors to ensure the 8,000 rods are not converted into weapons-grade plutonium.

Some North Korea observers hope Kim Jong Il will be more open to economic reform and a gradual opening of his country than his dogmatic father. Others fear the younger Kim, less secure in leadership, will be less willing to give up the nuclear insurance policy on which his scientists are suspected to be working.

The chief US negotiator at the Geneva talks, Assistant Secretary of State Robert Gallucci, is visiting Seoul and Tokyo to discuss how to deal with Kim Jong Il. Mr Gallucci is also trying to head off a North Korean attempt to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul, a much-used tactic in the 40 years of propaganda warfare between the two Koreas.

While welcoming the US talks, Pyongyang has recently switched on its anti-Seoul rhetoric, and it appears that plans for an interKorean summit, brokered by Jimmy Carter, a former US president, shortly before Kim Il Sung's death, are likely to be postponed indefinitely.