December 11, 2008 / 1:58 AM / in 10 years

North Korea talks fail to break impasse

BEIJING (Reuters) - Multilateral talks with North Korea failed on Thursday to break an impasse on checking Pyongyang’s nuclear declarations, scuppering the Bush administration’s hopes for a farewell diplomatic success.

Top U.S. nuclear envoy Christopher Hill (R) talks to reporters in Beijing December 10, 2008. Negotiations seeking progress in ending North Korea's nuclear weapons ambitions failed to make headway on Wednesday, Hill said, offering little hope of a breakthrough. REUTERS/Jason Lee

Host China said in a chairman’s statement at the end of four days of talks that the delegates had agreed to convene the next meeting as soon as possible, but offered few other details.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said that chief U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill was returning to the United States and had said North Korea did not want to put into writing what it had put into words.

“It’s too early for me to say what the next steps are, but what’s unfortunate is that the North Koreans had an opportunity here, there was an open door and all they had to do was walk through it,” Perino said.

“Because they decided not to work with us and the talks have devolved because they wouldn’t put it in writing, we’re going to have to rethink some of the action-for-action,” she said.

Japan’s top nuclear negotiator, Akitaka Saiki, said the prospect for setting up the next round of six-party talks appeared “quite difficult,” Japan’s Kyodo news agency said.

Having coaxed North Korea to partly disable its Yongbyon nuclear complex this year in a disarmament-for-aid deal, envoys from five states had been asking the wary and impoverished North to accept a protocol for checking its nuclear declaration.

NUCLEAR SAMPLES

U.S. President George W. Bush, who will be succeeded by President-elect Barack Obama on January 20, had hoped an agreement on verification would have opened the way to dismantling North Korea’s nuclear arms capacity.

The six-party talks, begun in 2003, bring together North and South Korea, host China, the United States, Japan and Russia. They took on fresh urgency after Pyongyang held its first nuclear test explosion in October 2006, but have made fitful progress.

During his first term in office, Bush denounced North Korea as part of an “axis of evil,” alongside Iran and Iraq, but later he strongly backed Hill’s efforts to strike a disarmament deal with the North.

North Korea has refused proposals to allow inspectors to take nuclear samples to test its declaration, said South Korea’s envoy Kim Sook, Kyodo news agency reported.

But analysts do not think North Korea, starved of energy and money, plans to quit the talks, at least for now, because it craves the aid coming to it through the nuclear deal, especially after cutting ties with South Korea, once a big benefactor.

U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack reiterated that without agreement on verification, the six-party process could not move forward.

However he did not rule out breaking the logjam before Bush leaves office. “We still believe that we can make progress in the remaining time we have in this administration. We’ll see, though. That will be up to North Korea,” he said.

Additional reporting by Lucy Hornby, Emma Graham-Harrison and Jason Subler in BEIJING, Jon Herskovitz in SEOUL, Chisa Fujioka and Sophie Hardach in TOKYO, and Tabassum Zakaria and Sue Pleming in WASHINGTON; Editing by Nick Macfie and Jeremy Laurence

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