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Last Updated: Thursday, 4 December, 2003, 00:30 GMT
'Set-back for N Korea talks'
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il (left) with top generals
The US and its allies want to strike a deal with Pyongyang
Working-level officials will discuss North Korea in Washington on Thursday amid fears that the next round of talks on the nuclear crisis might be delayed.

Officials from Japan, South Korea and the US want to thrash out when the next talks with Pyongyang will take place.

Sources were reported as saying on Wednesday that disagreements over a draft proposal were stalling progress.

Six-party talks, last held in Beijing in August, had been expected in mid-December, according to Japanese press.

Japan, South Korea and the US had rejected a Chinese proposal for a joint statement on the talks, negotiation sources told Japan's Kyodo news agency.

According to the sources, Tokyo, Seoul and Washington all considered the proposal to be too favourable to Pyongyang.

The draft statement suggests a security guarantee for North Korea in exchange for a pledge that Pyongyang will dismantle its nuclear programme.

But it envisages that North Korea can receive the guarantee before the dismantlement of its programme can be verified, something the US and its allies reported cannot accept.

The question of which comes first - a security guarantee or the dismantlement of North Korea's nuclear programme - has always been a sticking point between Washington and Pyongyang.

North Korea fears that making the first move could leave it vulnerable to attack.

Tensions have been escalating on the Korean peninsula since October 2002, when the US says Pyongyang admitted to a covert enriched uranium programme.

Since then, North Korea has restarted a mothballed nuclear power station, thrown out inspectors from the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency and pulled out of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.

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