Kim Jong Il 298.88.
(photo credit: AP)
North Korea defiantly proclaimed itself a nuclear power and called anew on the United States to soften its stance toward the regime, as the two countries met with regional powers Monday at the first full arms talks since Pyongyang's nuclear test.
The talks - also including China, Japan, Russia and South Korea - met after the North ended a 13-month boycott over US financial restrictions. But prospects for progress are uncertain, and North Korea stuck to its previously stated demands as all six countries opened the talks at a Chinese state guesthouse in Beijing.
"North Korea basically seems to say that it cannot dismantle its nuclear program unless the U.S. drops what it calls a hostile policy," a South Korean official said on condition of anonymity due to sensitivity of ongoing talks.
The North said it doesn't care if other countries accept it as a nuclear state and that it was just satisfied with the fact it had nuclear weapons, the official added.
The North will meet directly with the Americans later Monday, according to the South Korean official.
The sides are working to implement a September 2005 statement from the talks and outline initial steps to be taken. In that agreement - the only ever reached at the talks - the North pledged to abandon its nuclear program in exchange for security guarantees and aid.
"This session has significant meaning in building on past progress and paving the way for the future," Chinese envoy Wu Dawei said at the talks' start. "We hope that with the concerted efforts of all parties, we will be able to produce positive results at this session."
North Korea agreed to return to the six-nation negotiations just weeks after its Oct. 9 nuclear test, saying it wanted to discuss US financial restrictions against a bank where the regime held accounts.
That issue will be addressed in separate meetings, but envoys say the main focus will be on getting North Korea to take concrete steps to disarm in accord with a September 2005 agreement.
The US-North Korean meetings on the financial issue expected Monday were delayed by a day because the North Korean delegation responsible for that hasn't yet arrived in Beijing, the South Korean official said.
The arms talks have been plagued by delays and discord since they began in August 2003.
But North Korea's nuclear test of a device believed to be relatively small in explosive power has apparently hardened the will of other countries - particularly key benefactor China - to persuade the North to disarm.
Beijing signed on to a unanimous UN Security Council resolution sanctioning North Korea for its nuclear test, and brought Pyongyang and Washington together just a few weeks after the underground detonation to agree to a resumption of the arms talks.
North Korea had stayed away from the talks and called for the US to end its blacklisting of a Macau bank where the regime held accounts for its alleged complicity in counterfeiting US currency and money laundering by Pyongyang.
The US nuclear envoy, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, called on the North to live up to its disarmament pledge - threatening a move to sanctions if it fails to do so.
"I hope that (North Korea) understands that, as the rest of us do, that we really are reaching a fork in the road," Hill said Sunday after arriving in Beijing. "We can either go forward on a diplomatic track or you have to go to a much more difficult track and that is a track that involves sanctions and I think ultimately will really be very harmful to the (North's) economy."
However, the main North Korean negotiator Kim Kye Gwan said Saturday when arriving in Beijing that he was looking for a first step from the Americans, calling the lifting of the US financial restrictions a "precondition" to the negotiations moving forward.
Hill declined to respond publicly to Kim's demand, but emphasized that UN sanctions for the North's nuclear test would remain in effect until the North's gives up its atomic programs.