Pyongyang hints at nuclear concessions: Boutros-Ghali to spend Christmas in talks with Kim Il Sung as hopes grow of ending North Korean isolation

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The Independent Online
THE United Nations Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, is due to have Christmas Day talks with President Kim Il Sung of North Korea, amid hopes that Pyongyang may be moving to ease international fears of a nuclear confrontation.

North Korea is understood to have offered concessions during talks with the United States, which is determined to stop President Kim's Stalinist regime from developing nuclear weapons. Concern about Pyongyang's intentions has run high since early this year, when it threatened to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Although North Korea later agreed to remain in the treaty, it has continued to obstruct inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which said earlier this month that it could no longer certify that the country's nuclear facilities were being used for peaceful purposes.

American negotiators have offered to ease North Korea's diplomatic isolation and help restore its collapsing economy if it permits international inspection of its seven nuclear sites and resumes dialogue with Seoul. Earlier this month Pyongyang proposed opening five sites, but sought to exclude the two which have aroused the most suspicion - an experimental reactor and a reprocessing plant at Yongbyon, north of the capital. In its latest offer, however, made on Wednesday, North Korea is now willing to allow inspectors into all its facilities. Even though the concessions it is seeking in return are likely to be unacceptable to Washington and its allies, there is a new air of optimism that the deadlock can be broken.

'After months when nothing happened, things are slowly beginning to move,' said a South Korean diplomat. 'Business is being done.' The US, after consulting South Korea, Japan and other interested parties, is expected to propose another round of talks with North Korea next month. Washington will also want to hear from Mr Boutros- Ghali. The UN head, who crosses the heavily-fortified border between South and North Korea today, will go on to Peking on Sunday for talks with North Korea's only remaining influential ally.

US and South Korean officials are stressing that the North Korean nuclear threat has to be defused slowly and patiently. President Kim, who has recently sought to increase his family's hold on key positions, will not be persuaded to relinquish his only bargaining asset unless he can be assured that it will not lead to his downfall.

Fearful of being absorbed by its richer and more populous neighbour, the regime is resisting American demands that it resume negotiations with South Korea. This is a condition insisted upon by Seoul, however. After clumsy attempts by Washington to put pressure on Pyongyang backfired (an alarmist briefing by the Defense Secretary, Les Aspin, is believed to be one of the factors which cost him his job) President Bill Clinton is committed to working closely with the South Korean government.

Administration sources now emphasise that there is no imminent danger of armed conflict, nuclear or otherwise, with North Korea. Claims that Pyongyang had moved forces closer to the border with South Korea, and that Seoul might fall before the invading army could be repulsed, were based on an out-of-date intelligence assessment, they say. There is also said to be evidence that North Korea has halted its attempts to develop a nuclear weapon, although the US continues to insist that the programme must be dismantled entirely.

'The message we want to give North Korea is that we are prepared to give them time to meet our goals, but that we can't wait forever,' said one diplomat.