US and N Korea reach interim deal on nuclear arms dispute

GENEVA - The United States and North Korea yesterday announced an interim agreement to ease a row over North Korea's refusal to permit inspection of suspected nuclear sites.

The US delegation chief, Robert Gallucci, described the outcome of three days of talks as a 'step forward'. But he stressed that North Korea had not yet committed itself to accepting the inspections of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

A statement issued after the meeting merely said that North Korea was prepared to begin consultations with the IAEA to resolve outstanding problems over inspection of suspected nuclear facilities, and other safeguards. In return, the United States said it would consider helping North Korea switch its nuclear power programme to one less easily converted to military uses.

However, Mr Gallucci said that US assistance for North Korea to convert its nuclear power base to a light-water reactor programme was 'some distance down the road'.

After the meetings, the two sides issued statements saying they agreed that 'full and impartial application' of international safeguards was 'essential to accomplish a strong international nuclear non-proliferation regime'. The statement said officials would meet within two months 'to discuss outstanding matters related to resolving the nuclear issue . . . and to lay the basis for improving overall relations between North Korea and the United States'.

Mr Gallucci, an assistant secretary of state, said the next round of talks would not start until North Korea had entered into 'serious discussions' with both the IAEA and with South Korea about nuclear inspections. Mr Kang, a deputy foreign minister, said North Korean adherence to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) would depend on the IAEA being 'impartial'.

In a clear reference to the US, Mr Kang said much would depend on the 'reduction of the threat' to North Korea. President Bill Clinton warned North Korea this month that it would be destroyed if it developed and used a nuclear weapon. North Korea said the US faced 'fatal consequences' for any aggression.

North Korea has accused IAEA inspectors of working with the US to pry into non-nuclear military secrets. The deal was a breakthrough in a dispute that started when North Korea threatened this year that it would pull out of the NPT.