• Kyodo

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The United States and Japan have turned down South Korea’s two-stage approach to settle the standoff over North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs, diplomatic sources said Wednesday.

The proposal calls for dealing with North Korea’s plutonium-based nuclear program before its uranium enrichment program. It was presented at talks held by senior officials from Japan, South Korea and the U.S. in Washington on Monday and Tuesday.

While insisting the uranium enrichment program is a long way from completion and is not certain to work, South Korea proposed the U.S. resume fuel oil shipments and give a written security guarantee to North Korea in exchange for Pyongyang abandoning its plutonium-based nuclear program, the sources said.

But the U.S. rejected the proposal, saying both programs pose a threat and that resuming fuel oil shipments and providing a written security guarantee would be tantamount to giving in to North Korea’s dangerous game of nuclear brinkmanship, they said.

Japan agreed with the U.S. position, and facing opposition from its two allies, South Korea withdrew the proposal, the sources said.

When the three countries issued a joint statement at the end of their talks Tuesday, they urged North Korea to dismantle both nuclear programs.

But the U.S. rejection of the South Korean proposal highlights their underlying differences in how to deal with North Korea. Seoul has been seeking a compromise while the U.S. has been refusing to bargain on the nuclear issue.

In the statement, however, the U.S. signaled a willingness to have dialogue with North Korea on how “it meets its international obligations” on its nuclear programs.

The U.S. took the step apparently to show some understanding of South Korea’s position of pursuing a policy of engagement with North Korea.

Tensions on the Korean Peninsula have been growing since October, when North Korea told a U.S. envoy that it has a secret program to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons.

At that time, North Korea also said it was no longer bound by a 1994 bilateral pact committing the North to scrap its nuclear arms program in return for a U.S. pledge to build two modern nuclear reactors in North Korea and provide fuel oil as a stopgap measure pending the construction of the first reactor.

In response to Pyongyang’s admission that it had the uranium enrichment program, the U.S. suspended shipments of fuel oil in December.

North Korea since then has intensified efforts to resume its suspended plutonium-based nuclear program by removing seals at its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon and expelling International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors from the country.

The U.S. believes the Yongbyon complex, shut down under the 1994 pact, was used to produce nuclear weapons.

Top officials to visit

WASHINGTON (Kyodo) Senior U.S. officials will visit Japan later this month as part of their Asian tours to discuss the standoff over North Korea’s nuclear program, the U.S. State Department said Wednesday.

James Kelly, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, will visit Tokyo on Jan. 19, followed by John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, who will stay in Tokyo from Jan. 23 to 25.

Kelly will be in Seoul from Jan. 12 to 14, Beijing from Jan. 14 to 16, Singapore from Jan. 16 to 17 and Jakarta from Jan. 17 to 18, while Bolton will stay in Beijing from Jan. 19 to 21 and Seoul from Jan. 21 to 23.

“We’ll talk about our global, regional, bilateral issues of concern, including North Korea, the fight against terrorism and other events,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said at a regular briefing.

The Asian tours are intended to strengthen diplomatic efforts to press North Korea to abandon its nuclear arms program by holding close consultations with its neighbors.

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