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North Korea stalls on replying to peace talks offer

April 19, 1997

NEW YORK (AP) _ North Korea asked Saturday for more consultations before telling the United States and South Korea whether it will take part in peace talks to formally end the state of war on the divided Korean Peninsula.

U.S. officials acknowledged that prospects for receiving a quick response from the North Koreans were dim and that the contacts could break up without any decision.

A U.S. official said on condition of anonymity that ``working level contacts″ would continue through the weekend and ``there is some possibility″ of a formal meeting Monday.

The head of the U.S. delegation, acting Assistant Secretary of State Charles Kartman, returned to Washington on Saturday after failing to arrange a face-to-face meeting with his North Korean counterpart, vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan.

North Korea’s reply had been expected Friday following two days of meetings among delegations of the three countries. But Friday’s meeting was rescheduled for Saturday after the North Koreans said they were awaiting instructions from their government in Pyongyang.

American and South Korean negotiators waited for the North Koreans at a midtown Manhattan hotel Saturday morning. But a half-hour after the meeting’s scheduled starting time, U.S. officials said the North Koreans had asked for more low-level discussions, presumably to resolve differences raised by Pyongyang.

Those consultations, involving lower-ranking delegation members, began late Saturday morning and ended with little sign of progress.

U.S. and South Korean officials appeared clearly frustrated by the North Korean refusal to give an answer to an offer of four-way peace negotiations, which President Clinton and South Korean President Kim Young Sam made last year. China would join the formal negotiations.

``We are working on trying to obtain a response from the North Koreans to our proposal which we hope will be an acceptance of that proposal,″ a U.S. official said. ``The North Koreans at this point are still not prepared to have a meeting with us at heads-of-delegation level.″

The South Korean delegation was to have returned to Seoul late Friday but agreed to stay at North Korea’s request. South Korean officials suspected North Korea was stalling to increase pressure on them and the Americans to provide more food aid.

U.S. officials have insisted that food aid should not be a pre-condition for the peace talks. But the North Koreans were clearly hoping to squeeze as much food aid as possible out of the United States and South Korea as the price for its participation in future negotiations.

On Saturday, North Korea accepted a South Korean Red Cross proposal to discuss its acute food shortage. North Korea rejected similar proposals in 1995 and 1996.

Last year, President Clinton and South Korean leader Kim Young Sam offered to set up talks to forge a formal peace treaty to replace the 1953 armistice that ended fighting in the Korean War.

North Korea had repeatedly rejected any talks that include South Korea. But in December, the North agreed to discuss the possibility of negotiations. A first round of preliminary talks was held here in March.

Update hourly