A U.S. envoy on Tuesday ruled out resuming six-nation nuclear disarmament talks with North Korea while it works on a new uranium facility even as the North's patron China called for restarting the discussions.
The disagreement came as the U.S. envoy, Stephen Bosworth, continued a hurried series of consultations with North Korea's neighbors, leaving Tokyo and arriving in Beijing for talks with senior Chinese Foreign Ministry officials. Bosworth began his shuttle mission after a U.S. nuclear scientist reported visiting the new sophisticated uranium enrichment plant that could improve North Korea's ability to make and deliver nuclear weapons.
Bosworth said that North Korea's work on the new facility makes it impossible to resume the negotiations on its nuclear disarmament.
"Needless to say, we regard this development with great seriousness," Bosworth told reporters at a Tokyo hotel. "We do not contemplate resuming negotiations while active programs are under way or while there is a possibility that North Koreans will test another nuclear device or test a missile."
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, however, said the report of the new nuclear installation made an early resumption of talks more necessary.
"We have taken note of the relevant report" on the facility, said the spokesman, Hong Lei. "What is imperative now is to restart six-party talks as soon as possible."
Disagreements between the U.S. and China over how best to coax Pyongyang to the table have occasionally roiled the on-again, off-again talks, which also involve, Japan, Russia and South Korea as well as North Korea. Pyongyang agreed to dismantle its nuclear programs in return for aid and other concessions before the talks sputtered in late 2008 and foundered last year after North Korea conducted a second nuclear test.
Despite North Korea's moves, Beijing worries more about instability in its communist neighbor, preferring to offer aid, trade and other incentives as a way to encourage Pyongyang's cooperation.
The U.S., engaged in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and consumed with a listless economy at home, has also reacted coolly to Pyongyang's provocations and tightened its coordination with allies Japan and South Korea, both wary of North Korea.
Bosworth met with South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan in Seoul and Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara in Tokyo higher level receptions than he was to be accorded in Beijing. The new North Korean uranium facility, which Stanford University scientist Siegfried Hecker over the weekend reported that he was taken to, is part of the main Yongbyon atomic complex. Hecker reported that the facility appeared modern and that his North Korean hosts told him that it contained 2,000 centrifuges to enrich uranium.
The North's previously known nuclear program is plutonium-based. At low levels, uranium can be used in power reactors, but at higher levels it can be used in nuclear weapons.
The North has said it is building a light-water nuclear power reactor. Such a reactor is ostensibly for civilian energy purposes, but it would give the North a reason to enrich uranium.