US and N Korea move towards a deal

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THE United States and North Korea issued a joint statement early this morning on agreed steps aimed at settling their stand-off over Pyongyang's disputed nuclear programme. The text said 'important issues' remained to be resolved, but said North Korea would halt construction of two reactors and 'forego reprocessing' of spent uranium fuel.

The joint statement, released by North Korean officials in Geneva, said the two countries were prepared to establish 'diplomatic representation in each other's capitals . . . as a move toward full normalisation of political and economic relations'.

Technical experts will continue talks on issues including replacing North Korea's graphite reactors with light-water reactor power plants. North Korean and US officials agreed to resume high-level talks in Geneva on 23 September.

British experts are likely to be called in to help deal with 8,000 corroding nuclear fuel rods stored in murky cooling ponds at North Korea's Yongbyon complex, sources said yesterday.

The Foreign Office said no request had yet been received, but Britain has more experience than any other country in handling the type of fuel used in the Yongbyon reactor, which is based on natural uranium, and the US has sought British advice in its negotiations with North Korea over the country's suspect nuclear programme.

The question of what to do with the rods, removed from the reactor in defiance of the International Atomic Energy Agency earlier this year, was the most pressing issue in talks in Geneva yesterday between the two sides. The North Koreans say that for safety reasons the rods must be reprocessed by the end of August, but Washington wants to avoid this. The secretive Communist nation is already suspected of having enough plutonium to make one or two crude nuclear weapons, and reprocessing would give it enough for more.

American negotiators were understood to be offering technical assistance to purify and cool the water in the cooling tanks, which would make it possible to leave the rods where they are for up to a year while talks continue.

Early in July the two sides met for one day before the death of the North Korean leader, Kim Il Sung, brought their postponement. He was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong Il, but so far there has been no indication that this has affected North Korea's position in the talks.

Pyongyang is offering to scrap its existing nuclear technology, which produces large amounts of plutonium, in exchange for light- water reactors. The latest versions produce virtually no weapons- grade material, but the cost would be some dollars 2bn ( pounds 1.3bn), and North Korea is also demanding that the international community pay for its oil imports until the new reactors can supply electricity.

Pyongyang's trump card is the fuel rods, which weigh some 50 tons. It has resisted US proposals to ship them out of the country, and has suggested instead that they be removed from the cooling tanks, dried out and encased in concrete - a difficult and dangerous process which would probably require British help. Britain has developed special casks to hold Magnox-type rods, which can catch fire if they are exposed to air, but has never attempted a dry storage operation on the scale the North Koreans are proposing.