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North Korea digs in on U.S. peace talks demand

BEIJING (Reuters) - North Korea will not return to nuclear disarmament negotiations unless the United States agrees to peace treaty talks and lifts sanctions, a senior North Korean diplomat said on Tuesday, leaving little room for compromise.

U.S. envoy on North Korean human rights Robert King answers reporters' questions after meeting with South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan in Seoul January 11, 2010. REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won

Pyongyang has urged talks with the United States and other powers to formally end the 1950-53 Korean War, while the White House has said North Korea must first rejoin the long-stalled six-party nuclear negotiations before such proposals can be considered.

North Korea’s ambassador to China, Choe Jin-su, said in a rare news briefing in Beijing there could be immediate progress if the reclusive state’s demands were met. But six-party negotiations could resume only with the lifting of sanctions on North Korea and acceptance of its latest proposal for peace treaty talks.

“Only concluding a peace treaty can eradicate the hostile relations between the DPRK and the United States and rapidly and actively advance denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” Choe told a small group of reporters, speaking through English and Chinese translators.

North Korea may be calling for a peace deal and a lifting of sanctions to delay the nuclear talks and boost its leverage once the discussions finally begin, analysts said.

The DPRK, or Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, is the formal name for North Korea, which staged its second-ever nuclear test in May 2009, drawing international condemnation and a fresh round of U.N. sanctions.

“Only if the sanctions on the DPRK -- these barriers expressing discrimination and distrust -- are removed can the six-party talks resume,” said Choe.

“If the sanctions on the DPRK are lifted, then the six-party talks can resume immediately. The key word is immediately.”

CONCESSIONS, THEN TALKS

Choe’s demands echoed his government’s often-repeated calls for other powers to make concessions before it returns to the disarmament talks, which bring together North and South Korea, host China, the United States, Japan and Russia.

But the rare briefing by the ambassador suggested North Korea is digging in its heels.

“The best thing would be for the DPRK and the United States bilaterally to first sit down together for talks,” said Choe.

The administrations of presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush have said Washington can discuss a peace treaty once the North ends its nuclear arms program, considered one of the biggest security risks to economically vital North Asia.

South Korean Defense Minister Kim Tae-young was skeptical about the North’s peace treaty proposal.

“There have been many cases where North Korea has made a gesture of peace while stepping up its provocations,” Kim told a news conference in Seoul.

“Our military should promote peace talks but we are always aware that North Korea can create provocations in any situation.”

This year marks 60 years since the start of the Korean War, which also drew China and the United States and their allies into the conflict that ended with an armistice in 1953. No full peace treaty to end hostilities formally has been signed.

South Korea was not a party to the armistice. Choe said he did not know whether Seoul would be a part of any peace treaty.

Japanese and South Korean news reports recently have cited claims North Korea’s secretive top leader, Kim Jong-il, may visit China soon, his nation’s neighbor and key economic backer.

But neither Beijing nor Pyongyang has announced any trip by Kim, and Choe did not answer a question about the role any such visit could play.

Additional reporting by Christine Kim and Jon Herskovitz in Seoul; Editing by Ken Wills and Nick Macfie

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