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S. Korea considers halt to rice shipments to pressure N. Korea
SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea may suspend rice aid to North Korea to ratchet up pressure on the North to comply with its nuclear disarmament pledges after it missed a deadline to shut an atomic reactor.

"We can't just ignore and do nothing if ... North Korea doesn't take initial steps" to disarm as agreed in February at six-nation nuclear talks, an unnamed South Korean official said Monday, according to the Dong-a Ilbo newspaper. Other dailies carried similar reports.

The two Koreas were set to begin talks Wednesday in Pyongyang to discuss the North's request for 400,000 tons of rice.

South Korea periodically sends rice and fertilizer to the impoverished North, which has relied heavily on foreign handouts since the mid-1990s when natural disasters and mismanagement devastated its economy and famine led to the deaths of as many as 2 million people.

An official at South Korea's Unification Ministry, which deals with North Korea affairs, said "nothing has been decided yet." The official spoke on customary condition of anonymity.

It wasn't clear if the official's comment reflected a step back from the ministry's earlier position that South Korea would give rice to the North even if the shutdown deadline was missed. Vice Unification Minister Shin Eon-sang told reporters earlier this month amid signs of a possible failure to meet the deadline that Seoul would provide the North with rice as planned.

North Korea had until Saturday to shut down its nuclear reactor, but failed to do so because of a delay in the release of its funds frozen in a Macau bank, which was blacklisted by the United States for allegedly assisting the communist regime in money-laundering and counterfeiting.

The North has said it won't take steps to disarm until all the funds are released.

A Russian official said Monday that the U.S. failure to allow the North to have access to its funds had stalled progress on the February agreement.

Under that accord between North Korea and five other nations — South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the U.S. — the North was also to receive 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil to be donated by the South in return for shuttering its reactor.

"There won't be any progress until the North Korean side says that it has received the money," Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov said, according to the Interfax, ITAR-Tass and RIA Novosti news agencies.

Also Monday, Japan said it was "not appropriate" to set a new deadline for the reactor shutdown and instead insisted that the North respect its promises.

"It is extremely regrettable that North Korea did not follow the agreement," said chief Cabinet spokesman Yasuhisa Shiozaki. "North Korea is in a position to immediately implement the agreement."

Before leaving Beijing on Sunday, the main U.S. nuclear negotiator said Washington would give the North a "few more days" to act.

"We're not happy that the (North) essentially has missed this very important deadline," Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill told reporters. "We're obviously going to be watching the situation very closely in the coming days."

The North has made no official comment has come since the deadline, with the country consumed Sunday in celebrations of one of its main holidays: the birthday of late leader Kim Il Sung, known as the "Day of the Sun." Kim, father of current leader Kim Jong Il, remains the main focus of an immense personality cult and since his 1994 death, still retains the title as the country's president.
MGR Archive 18.4.2007
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