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North Korea seen still open to nuclear talks

BEIJING (Reuters) - North Korea wants to advance nuclear disarmament steps if its aid demands are met and it played down concerns over possible missile launches, a former senior U.S. diplomat just back from Pyongyang said on Saturday.

North Korean soldiers look south on the north side of the truce village of Panmunjom in the demilitarised zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas in Paju, about 55 km (34 miles) north of Seoul, December 6, 2008. REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won

Pyongyang, which may be moving to test-fire its longest range Taepodong-2 missile in a bid to grab the attention of new U.S. President Barack Obama, said it had the right to make such a launch.

Stephen Bosworth, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea and now dean at the Fletcher School of diplomacy at Tufts University, said senior North Korean officials he met in his five-day visit to Pyongyang would not confirm or deny any missile launch plans.

“They said we should all wait and see,” he said of the possibility of launches. “There was no threat, no indication that they were concerned. They treated the missile issue as just another run-of-the-mill issue.”

The North Korean officials told Bosworth’s group of seven U.S. academics and former officials that their country wants progress in the six-party nuclear disarmament talks, which have faltered in dispute over the North’s obligations and its demands for more heavy fuel oil shipments.

In what could be seen as a justification for a missile test, North Korea’s communist party newspaper said “our country, as a member of international society, has a right to enter space and compete for space science technology.”

The impoverished North has claimed the Taepodong-2, which fizzled and destructed seconds after it was last test-launched in 2006, is the cornerstone of its space programme. Experts said the missile is only for military purposes and designed to eventually hit U.S. territory.

Proliferation experts said the North, which tested a nuclear device in October 2006, does not have the technology to miniaturise a nuclear weapon to mount as a warhead.

Bosworth told reporters at Beijing airport: “We concluded that the outlook is that we can continue to work towards eventual denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.”

“They understand that the Obama administration will need some time to sort itself through the (North Korea) policy review and they expressed patience. There’s no sense of alarm or urgency.”


Bosworth said the group was a private one, but he would discuss the trip with Obama administration officials.

Sputtering six-way talks on ending North Korea’s atomic arms programme sealed an initial agreement offering isolated Pyongyang energy aid and an opening to better international ties in return for shutting and taking apart its Yongbyon nuclear facility that makes arms-grade plutonium.

The six-party talks, held in Beijing, bring together North and South Korea, the United States, China, Japan and Russia.

Under an agreement last year, North Korea was offered up to 1 million tonnes of heavy fuel or equivalent aid in return for progress on denuclearisation, but by mid-November, the North had received about half of that amount.

“It’s clear that they will require satisfaction of the commitment for heavy fuel oil,” said Bosworth.

But the U.S. visitors said Pyongyang seemed sincere in wanting progress.

“I don’t think they see any urgency to circumstances, although it is very clear that if there’s a way to complete phase two, there is a real keen interest in doing so,” said Jonathan Pollack, a member of the group who is an East Asia security expert at the U.S. Naval War College on Rhode Island.

Uncertainty about the North’s intentions has been compounded by uncertainty about the health of its top leader, Kim Jong-il, who may have suffered a stroke.

The U.S. visitors said they were given no information about Kim’s health, but Pollack said he felt no sense of drift.

“It certainly did not seem a system where it is headless or purposeless,” he said.

Additional reporting by Lucy Hornby in Beijing and Jon Herskovitz in Seoul; Editing by David Fox