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Friday, October 20, 2006

Report: N. Korea 'sorry' for nuke test

SEOUL, South Korea (AP)- North Korean leader Kim Jong Il said Pyongyang didn't plan to carry out any more nuclear tests and expressed regret about the country's first-ever atomic detonation last week, a South Korean news agency reported Friday.

North Korea, however, kept up its bellicose rhetoric as more than 100,000 people gathered Friday in Pyongyang's central Kim Il Sung square to "hail the success of the historic nuclear test," according to the North's official media.

Kim told Chinese State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan that "we have no plans for additional nuclear tests," Yonhap news agency reported, citing an unnamed diplomatic source in Beijing.

Kim also told the Chinese that "he is sorry about the nuclear test," the mass-circulation Chosun Ilbo daily reported, citing a diplomatic source in China. The North Korean leader also raised the possibility the country would return to arms talks.

"If the U.S. makes a concession to some degree, we will also make a concession to some degree, whether it be bilateral talks or six-party talks," Kim was quoted as telling a Chinese envoy, the newspaper reported.

The delegation led by Tang met Kim on Thursday and returned to Beijing later that day.

China is viewed as a key nation in efforts to persuade the North to disarm, as it is the isolated communist nation's main trading partner and provides almost all of its oil, and it is weighing tough options. Government experts have called for the reduction of critical supplies of oil and food.

A North Korean official, meanwhile, defended last week's nuclear test and said Pyongyang would "crush U.S. imperialists' schemes with its self-defensive power."

"No matter how the U.S. imperialists try to stifle and isolate our republic ... victory will be on the side of justice," said Choe Thae Bok, secretary of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea, according to the North's official Korean Central News Agency's Korean-language report.

Choe made the comments at a rally in the North Korean capital in which tens of thousands of citizens and soldiers cheered the nuclear test, according to KCNA — the first known celebration directly tied to the explosion.

Meeting with Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice in Beijing on Friday, Tang said that his trip had "not been in vain." Chinese officials also expressed hope that the North would return to arms talks that it has boycotted since last year in anger over U.S. financial restrictions.

The options Beijing is considering mark a break from even the recent past in which China has preferred to use incentives rather than threats with Pyongyang. But the Oct. 9 nuclear test further frayed already damaged ties and strengthened the hand of critics who believe Beijing should take a harder line against a North Korea they say has ignored Chinese interests.

Even before the nuclear tests, with its patience wearing thin, China reduced food aid to the chronically food-short North by two-thirds this year, according to the U.N. World Food Program. After voting last week for U.N. sanctions that ban trade in military and luxury goods, China stepped up inspections of the trucks crossing into North Korea.

On Friday, all four major Chinese state-owned banks and British-owned HSBC Corp. said they have stopped financial transfers to the North — a step beyond what the U.N. sanctions require and a likely blow to a weak economy that relies on China as a link to the world financial system.

Chinese leaders aren't ready to fully cut off North Korea, an ally from the Korean War and still a useful buffer state in Northeast Asia. In enforcing U.N. sanctions, China has balked at inspecting cargo ships, saying it could lead to armed conflict. And Beijing insists it wants Pyongyang to resume negotiations on disarmament, not an end to Kim Jong Il's regime.

But Beijing's growing exasperation with Pyongyang has made a once unthinkable harder line more likely, experts said.

"North Korea is China's biggest foreign policy failure of the past 50 years," said Zhang Liangui of the Central Party School, a training academy for China's communist leadership. "China ought to cut off oil and food."

North Korea has long insisted that the U.S. desist from a campaign to sever its ties to the international financial system. Washington accuses Pyongyang of complicity in counterfeiting and money laundering to sell weapons of mass destruction.

The North has refused since last November to return to the nuclear talks, which include the U.S., China, Japan, Russia and
South Korea. Pyongyang has sought bolster its negotiating position by a series of provocative actions, test-firing a barrage of missiles in July and performing its nuclear test.
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