FUKUOKA, Japan (Reuters) - North Korea threatened on Saturday to slow disablement of its main nuclear plant after Washington said energy aid to the state had been suspended due to failed talks on verifying the North’s operations.
The leaders of China, Japan and South Korea expressed regret the North had failed to agree to specific steps on verifying its nuclear activities at multilateral talks in Beijing this week.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said all five countries negotiating with North Korea — Japan, Russia, China, the United States and South Korea — had agreed that future fuel shipments would not go forward until there was progress on a so-called verification protocol with Pyongyang.
“This is an action-for-action process,” McCormack told reporters in Washington. “Future fuel shipments aren’t going to move forward absent a verification regime ... they (the North Koreans) understand that.”
But Russia said there had been no agreement about suspending fuel shipments.
“The U.S. State Department’s recent statement ... surprised us,” deputy foreign minister and Russian envoy to the six party talks, Alexei Borodavkin, told RIA Novosti news agency.
He said the Russian delegation “had not agreed upon any joint arrangements with the United States about a delay or suspension of fuel oil shipments to North Korea as an offset against dismantling of the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center.”
North Korea’s nuclear envoy Kim Kye-gwan was quoted by Kyodo news agency as telling reporters in Beijing that Pyongyang would “probably adjust the pace of disablement at nuclear facilities if (the aid) is suspended.”
North Korea has been in negotiations with the United States over its nuclear arms programme for more than a decade and the issue took on extra urgency after Pyongyang held its first nuclear test explosion in October 2006.
Two months ago, the Bush administration said it was removing North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, based on Pyongyang’s oral commitment to a verification plan.
Experts believe Pyongyang is holding out on a verification protocol until the Obama administration takes over next month.
Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak criticized Pyongyang for its “uncooperative attitude” at the talks in Beijing, South Korea’s presidential office said in a statement..
Aso and Lee met in southern Japan ahead of a rare trilateral summit with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao at which the global financial crisis topped the agenda.
In a statement, the three countries said the six-party talks remained an important mechanism for maintaining peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and in North Asia at large.
Aso and Lee reaffirmed their stance toward North Korea, with Lee telling a joint news conference that dismantling Pyongyang’s nuclear programme “will surely and should be achieved in the end,” although he said it might take a long time.
U.S. nuclear envoy Christopher Hill returned to Washington after the failed Beijing talks and briefed U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Friday, said McCormack, adding that Hill would continue trying to get a deal.
“There’s the opportunity for North Korea to sign onto this verification protocol,” he said. “That still exists. We’ll see. The ball is in their court.”
Under an agreement last year, up to 1 million tonnes of heavy fuel aid was promised to North Korea as a reward for progress on denuclearization. Countries outside the five-nation group also have volunteered to supply North Korea with energy.
By mid-November, North Korea had received about half of the amount promised by the five and the United States has provided about 200,000 tons of that, the State Department said.
An unspecified amount of fuel was delivered this month by Russia and will finish being offloaded in North Korea next week, State Department spokesman Robert McInturff told Reuters.
But McCormack said Russia had made clear in this week’s talks in Beijing that any future shipments would not be made until North Korea agreed to the verification protocol.
Additional reporting by Sue Pleming in Washington, Tetsushi Kajimoto in Fukuoka and Maria Kiselyova in Moscow; Writing by Jeremy Laurence; Editing by Elizabeth Piper