US and N Korea move towards official ties at co-operation

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The Independent Online

The United States and North Korea may open liaison offices in each others' capitals as early as August following an agreement announced in Malaysia yesterday, but wrangling over the main subject of negotiations between the two - Pyongyang's suspect nuclear programme - is likely to continue.

Increased diplomatic contacts were part of a deal reached in Geneva in October which aimed to prevent North Korea developing nuclear weapons. The main proposal was to replace the Stalinist regime's reactors with light-water technology supplied by South Korea, which would also meet most of the pounds 2.5bn cost. Light-water reactors produce far less weapons- grade plutonium than North Korea's existing plants.

Almost immediately, Pyongyang began balking at the thought of giving its bitter rival a propaganda coup. It refused to accept South Korean reactors, and threatened twice during the ensuing talks to begin reprocessing fuel rods stored in a cooling pond at Yongbyon, its main nuclear site. Yesterday's deal skates around the problem by saying the reactor type to be supplied is "the advanced version of US-origin design". A US company will be "programme co-ordinator", but in reality the reactors will be identical to two being built at Ulchin, on South Korea's east coast.

The language, however, satisfies North Korea's strategy, which is to insist on dealing directly with the US rather than with South Korea or the United Nations, both seen as being under Washington's control. Recently, Pyongyang has been seeking to dismantle the UN-administered armistice which ended the Korean War. It is demanding a bilateral peace treaty with the US instead.

Although Washington has rejected this, every concession won by North Korea over its nuclear programme has frayed nerves in Seoul. President Bill Clinton assured South Korea this week that it would play a leading role in providing the new reactors to its neighbour, which has become even more mysterious since the death of its supreme leader, Kim Il Sung.

Yesterday it said Kim would be kept in "eternal state" in Pyongyang, apparently confirming that the regime had succeeded in embalming him. There was speculation that the 8 July anniversary of his death might be when his son, Kim Jong Il, assumed to be in control of the country, is anointed as his successor.