Pyongyang's hefty claims threaten deal

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NORTH KOREA is demanding such a high price from the United States for abandonment of its suspected nuclear weapons programme that the prospect of agreement is 'pretty bleak', a source close to the negotiations said yesterday.

The size of Pyongyang's 'shopping list' emerged at expert-level talks which wound up in Berlin yesterday, prompting the source to say: 'The US has to question whether the North Koreans are negotiating seriously. At best they simply don't seem to comprehend the magnitude of what they are asking for.' He estimated that the cost of meeting their demands was approaching dollars 10bn ( pounds 6.5bn), adding: 'One cannot even start to bargain at such a high level.'

Last month the US offered to replace North Korea's existing nuclear technology, which produces large quantities of plutonium, with light-water reactors. This would increase the impoverished Communist nation's nuclear power capacity about eightfold. The new reactors would produce less fissionable material, but would take six to 10 years to construct. Apart from their cost, at least dollars 4bn, Pyongyang wants 'several billion dollars' in compensation for scrapping its facilities and being forced to use imported energy in the meantime, according to Kim Jong U, leader of its delegation in Berlin.

As Congress is unlikely to approve a fraction of such sums, the US has sought help from North Korea's neighbours. Pyongyang, however, has ruled out technology from South Korea, and is demanding Western reactors. 'Since the United States is going to solve the financial problems, we don't need to worry about that,' Mr Kim said, when asked whether cost would be a factor.

The announcement last month of a framework for the resolution of the nuclear dispute raised hopes that North Korea might bargain away its reputed weapons programme, account for its activities and adhere to its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, in exchange for diplomatic recognition and economic aid.

However, said the source, the North Koreans 'appear to believe they can use the nuclear material they have concealed to solve all their economic, diplomatic, technological and political problems at a stroke. The US can't afford unlimited largesse, both practically and in terms of the precedent this sets for other states who might be thinking of developing nuclear weapons.' Full negotiations are due to resume in Geneva a week today, but the US has lately dampened expectations of progress.

Robert Gallucci, the State Department's chief negotiator with Pyongyang, who is visiting Japan and South Korea this week, told the New York Times that there was 'a great deal of mistrust' between the two sides. Seoul insists that the technology given to the North should rely on South Korean expertise.

Defenders of the American strategy say the framework announcement prevented a worsening of the diplomatic crisis over North Korea's nuclear programme. But Pyongyang's removal of 8,000 fuel rods from a reactor at Yongbyon continues to put pressure on the negotiations.

The US wants the rods to be taken out of North Korea. Mr Kim said no agreement had been reached in the Berlin talks. This issue, along with the unresolved question of the size and type of possible replacement reactors, will have to be taken up in Geneva.