Heated trading in N Korea talks


NORTH KOREA: Delegates from six countries trying to end a tense nuclear stand-off on the Korean peninsula have had heated exchanges over the wording of the first joint communique to emerge from the talks.

Despite frayed tempers after six days of hard bargaining, the debate was read as a sign of progress in the tortuous talks.

"Each country presented its opinion, and in some areas, the differences among the countries became clear," a Japanese government official said after a 4½-hour session by delegates from North and South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States.

"There were heated exchanges, depending on the topic," the official said, adding that the process of drafting the document, which was proposed by China, would continue today.

Washington is trying to coax the North into abandoning its nuclear ambitions in return for energy aid, security guarantees and other economic sweeteners.

According to leaks from within the talks, the draft document penned by China contained a principle of simultaneous action, one of the demands by North Korea.

Talks broke down for 13 acrimonious months, but there has been a generally positive prognosis for this current, fourth round.

However, it has already gone on longer than previous bouts but there are still hopes for a positive outcome, even if only to agree to hold more talks. There have been lengthy bilateral meetings between US and North Korean delegates within the talks.

Analysts interpret the one-on-one bilateral talks as a sign that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been given more leeway on the North Korean nuclear issue than her predecessor, Colin Powell.

The stakes were raised considerably when the secretive Stalinist state declared in February that it possessed nuclear weapons and repeatedly said it was boosting that arsenal to counter what it called hostile US policies.

Proliferation experts believe Pyongyang has possibly eight nuclear weapons.

North Korea has indicated that it will rejoin the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and allow international inspectors to verify that it has scrapped nuclear weapons if the current talks are successful.

Pyongyang insists it needs nuclear weapons to face down the growing threat of invasion from the US, which has repeatedly referred to the country as one of the worst offenders in President Bush's "axis of evil".

Washington's man at the talks, Christopher Hill, remains optimistic. "I think we do have a consensus on the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula . . . but the DPRK especially has some emphasis on some other elements, so we have to see how we do," he said.