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Headway made on checking N.Korea nuclear claims

BEIJING (Reuters) - International envoys at talks on disarming North Korea made headway on Friday on verifying the communist state’s own account of its nuclear activities, but big differences remained, officials said.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill listens to a speech at the opening ceremony of a new round of Six Party Talks on North Korea's nuclear issue in Beijing Thursday July 10, 2008. REUTERS/Greg Baker/Pool

The talks by six countries aimed at coaxing North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons programme are the first in nine months and come after Pyongyang last month produced a declaration of its nuclear activities, one of the big steps pledged under a broad disarmament-for-aid deal.

“On verification and monitoring mechanism, we took the common denominator from our positions and gave it to the working group as a basis for its discussions,” South Korea’s chief envoy Kim Sook told reporters.

“But on this issue, the differences in positions among the countries are large.”

Asked to explain the differences, a South Korean official said North Korea and the other five countries disagreed on how the verification should proceed and who would take part.

“There are differences on whether the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) should take part and what its role would be,” he said, while not limiting the differences to questions about the U.N. nuclear agency.

Discussions at this newest round of talks did move beyond the subject of verifying the North’s nuclear account and took up the issue of economic and energy aid for the impoverished and isolated state, South Korean officials said.

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The negotiators, from North and South Korea, the United States, Japan, Russia and host China, are seeking to push forward a preliminary disarmament deal that saw Pyongyang freeze and begin disabling its Yongbyon nuclear reactor.

In exchange for those steps, and for handing over last month the declaration originally due at the end of 2007, North Korea has been receiving much-needed energy aid and was also promised improved diplomatic relations.

Under the deal, the United States has moved towards taking the North off its list of state sponsors of terrorism and ending some sanctions under the Trading with the Enemy Act.

Japan, which has refused to take part in supplying heavy fuel oil to the North under the disarmament deal, continued to stand by the position that until Pyongyang addressed its questions about its missing civilians, it cannot join in the energy aid.

Chief U.S. envoy Christopher Hill has hinted that disagreement remained among the six countries also over whether the declaration was adequate.

Questions remain about the ambitions of North Korea, which defied international warnings by testing a nuclear device in 2006.

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In particular, Washington suspects that the North was secretly trying to enrich uranium, another path to making material for nuclear weapons.

Friday’s talks were clouded by a report that a South Korean tourist had been shot to death by a North Korean soldier at Mount Kumgang resort just north of the militarised border that divide the Korean peninsula.

Some of the envoys expressed shock and called the incident “tragic.” It was not clear whether North Korean envoy Kim Kye-gwan had been briefed on the news, officials said.

The negotiating session is expected to end on Saturday.

Additional reporting by Lindsay Beck and Chris Buckley; Editing by David Fox