North Korea insists it will only talk to US

Korean conundrum: North rejects four-nation conference aimed at bringing `permanent peace' to peninsula

North Korea appeared last night to have rejected a US-South Korean proposal for four-nation talks aimed at bringing about a permanent peace on the peninsula.

Hours after the announcement of the joint initiative by the South Korean President, Kim Young Sam, and President Bill Clinton, the North Korean ambassador to Moscow said his government did not need any mediators, and that it was prepared to negotiate with the United States alone.

"At present other countries have no role to play in this area," Song Sung Pil was quoted as saying. "There is no need for an international conference on this question."

The proposal, for a conference involving China, the US, and the two Koreas, emerged from a summit on the South Korean island of Cheju, where Mr Clinton stopped en route to more talks in Japan and Russia.

Emphasising that "the establishment of a stable, permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula is the task of the Korean people", an announcement by the two presidents none the less called for a government-level meeting between representatives of the four countries, "as soon as possible and without preconditions ... aimed at achieving a permanent peace agreement."

The Kim-Clinton summit had originally been intended as little more than a handshaking session, but was upgraded after an interlude 10 days ago when North Korean troops made three illegal incursions into the demilitarised zone which divides the peninsula.

Pyongyang has been pressing for a direct treaty with Washington to replace the military armistice which ended the Korean War of 1950-53, a prospect which terrifies Seoul.

Mr Clinton rejected that option yesterday but the meeting raised the possibility of a four-way deal, involving all the main combatants in the war.

It met with a cautious welcome from Peking. "We have taken notes of reports on the four-way talks," said Shen Guofang, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, before the North Korean statement. "What I can stress is that we hope peace and stability can be maintained and that China will play a constructive role."

Despite political uncertainty, a crumbling economy, and food shortages, Pyongyang has consistently rejected peace talks with the South. The last time they were floated was in 1994, but the idea fell through after the death of Kim Il Sung, North Korea's founding president.

Soon after, Pyongyang provoked a crisis when it refused to admit inspectors to an atomic-energy plant which was suspected of generating weapons-grade plutonium.

An international consortium formed to supply safe nuclear reactors to Pyongyang included South Korean officials but apart from these low-level technical contacts there has been no official dialogue between the two sides. Even before North Korea's rejection, South Korean and US officials were warning that the North was unlikely to leap at the proposal, which will doubtless be discussed on the Japanese and Russian legs of Mr Clinton's tour.

Last night he arrived in Tokyo for a two-day visit intended to address the troubled US-Japan Security Treaty, a key component of American defence policy in Asia. Since September, when a girl was raped by US troops on Okinawa, there have been demands in Japan for a cut in US bases. On Monday the US Defense Secretary, William Perry, unveiled a plan to reduce military facilities in Okinawa by up to a fifth.

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