North Korea said Tuesday it would not dismantle its nuclear weapons program until the United States first gives it a nuclear reactor for generating power, casting doubt on its commitment to a breakthrough agreement reached at international arms talks.
The North had insisted since arms talks began last week in Beijing that it be given a light-water reactor, a type less easily diverted for weapons use, in exchange for abandoning nuclear weapons. The agreement reached at the talks' end Monday _ the first since the negotiations began in August 2003 _ says the six countries in the negotiations will discuss the reactor issue "at an appropriate time."
But the North said Tuesday it wants a reactor first.
"The U.S. should not even dream of the issue of (North Korea's) dismantlement of its nuclear deterrent before providing (light-water reactors), a physical guarantee for confidence-building," the North's Foreign Ministry said in a statement carried by the North's official Korean Central News Agency.
"This is our just and consistent stand as solid as a deeply rooted rock," the ministry said.
Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura said Tuesday the North's reactor demand was "unacceptable," Kyodo News agency reported.
Other countries at the talks made clear that the reactor could only be discussed after the North rejoins the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and accepts inspections from the International Atomic Energy Agency _ which North Korea pledged to do in Monday's agreement.
U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli emphasized earlier in Washington that the "appropriate time" for discussing the reactor means only after the North comes in compliance with those conditions.
"It's a theoretical proposition in the future, contingent on dismantling having taken place, resigning up to the NPT and having IAEA safeguards in place," he said Monday in Washington.
The North had demanded during the six-nation talks in Beijing _ which include China, Japan, Russia, the United States and the two Koreas _ that it be allowed to keep a civilian nuclear program for power generation after it disarms.
But the United States strongly opposed the demand, and Monday's agreement only acknowledged that the North had "stated" its claim to that right.
The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has opposed anything resembling a 1994 U.S.-North Korea agreement, which promised the North two light-water reactors for power. That project stalled amid the current crisis that broke out in late 2002 after U.S. officials said the North admitted to a secret nuclear program.
The North's position is likely to be a major sticking point in talks slated to begin in early November on implementing Monday's agreement.
"If the North meant it, it would pose a lot of problems for future talks," said Baek Seung-joo, senior researcher at the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis in Seoul. "The United States will never be able to accept the North's demand as it means going back to the 1994 agreement."
The agreement Monday had drawn praise around the world and raised hopes of a resolution of the North Korea nuclear standoff, which has sparked concerns about instability and an arms race in northeast Asia.
The chief U.N. nuclear inspector called Monday for a quick return to the North _ which expelled his agency in early 2003.
"The earlier we go back the better," said Mohamed Elbaradei, head of the Vienna-based IAEA.
The main American nuclear negotiator had urged the North to shut down the nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, its main nuclear facility, after the talks.
"What is the purpose of operating it at this point?" said U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill. "The time to turn it off would be about now."
But the North said Tuesday it would still "wait and see how the U.S. will move" and warned there would "very serious and complicated" consequences if Washington demands the dismantlement of the communist nation's nuclear programs before providing a light-water reactor.
"If the U.S. opts for reneging on its promise, we will go ahead without an inch of deflection along the road indicated by the Songun line, our faith and signpost," the North said, referring to leader Kim Jong Il's policy emphasizing the military's primary role in society, AP reported.