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Vacuum in Pyongyang throws G7 off course

CONFUSED world leaders stared possible disaster in the face yesterday as their G7 summit was again disrupted by the real world - this time by the death of Kim Il Sung.

The wildly differing reactions from the world's seven richest democracies, meeting in Naples, were testimony to their difficulty in coping with an unexpected event.

President Bill Clinton's first public comment yesterday was one of conciliatory sympathy: 'On behalf of the people of the US, I extend sincere condolences to the people of North Korea on the death of President Kim Il Sung. We appreciate his leadership in resuming the talks between our governments. We hope they will continue as appropriate.'

When asked whether he would mourn the dead leader, Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, declared: 'History will not be kind to this man.'

The leader of the country most affected by any Korean crisis, Japan's septuagenarian Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, was not even at the summit when the news broke; he was still recovering in a clinic from dehydration brought on by the Naples heat.

One of the first decisions Kim Il Sung's successors will have to take is about the future of the negotiations with the US over North Korea's nuclear programme. The talks resumed in Geneva on Friday after a gap of nearly a year.

Yesterday's talks between Robert Gallucci, an Assistant Secretary of State, and Kang Sok Ju, North Korea's First Deputy Foreign Minister, were cancelled at the latter's request. Mr Gallucci said the North Koreans had asked him to remain in Geneva for consultations.

The two sides had seven hours of talks the previous day, in an atmosphere described as cordial, given that the US had been seeking sanctions against North Korea in the UN Security Council less than a month ago. A confrontation was averted after former US president Jimmy Carter visited Pyongyang, where Kim agreed to suspend key elements of North Korea's nuclear programme if Washington reopened talks.

As the former dictator lies in state in Pyongyang, 8,000 nuclear fuel rods, removed from North Korea's main reactor last month in defiance of UN safeguards, are slowly cooling in water tanks at the Yongbyon nuclear complex.

At some point, probably next month, a critical point will be reached: the rods will be ready to yield enough plutonium for several nuclear bombs. The longer they are left there without being reprocessed, the less weapons-grade material can be extracted. So it will soon become clear what Kim Il Sung's heirs intend to do with his most sinister legacy.

Mr Gallucci came to Geneva offering to help replace North Korea's reactors with light-water technology, which is less suitable for weapons production, as well as economic aid and diplomatic recognition, but only if Pyongyang dropped any attempt to develop nuclear arms. The same elements were on offer more than six months ago, yet the North Korean regime chose to raise the stakes by removing the fuel rods.

President Clinton fudged questions yesterday over whether an accession to full power by Kim Jong Il, the son of Kim Il Sung, would pull out of talks for good. 'Obviously the people there are preoccupied with their grief. But we have no reason to believe that they will not continue,' he said.

In Naples, the Seven were worried about what one observer described as a likely 'mother and father of all power struggles' within North Korea, the role of the army, food shortages, a possible mass exodus to South Korea and, above all, the prospect of Kim Jong Il at the helm.

As Caspar Weinberger, the former US Defense Secretary, once put it, Kim Il Sung was a threat to world peace but his son 'is considerably worse'.