NKorea unlikely to abandon nuclear arms: Bush human rights envoy

( AFP ) - North Korea is unlikely to abandon its nuclear weapons before US President George W. Bush leaves office in January 2009, his special envoy said Thursday, calling for a revamp of six-party talks to end the crisis.

Jay Lefkowitz, special envoy for human rights in North Korea, also accused China and South Korea of not exerting enough pressure on North Korea during the talks that first began in 2003 to end Pyongyang's nuclear weapons drive.

"It is increasingly clear that North Korea will remain in its present nuclear status when the administration leaves office in one year," he told a forum in Washington.

Using unusually sharp words, he said North Korea "has not kept its word," was "not serious about disarming in a timely manner" and "its conduct does not appear to be that of a government that is willing to come in from the cold."

Lefkowitz also accused Pyongyang of being a "serial proliferator" and using its nuclear arms to "extort" foreign aid, saying there was no guarantee that US military and nuclear strength could prevent it from passing on nuclear arms or technology to Islamists or their backers.

His remarks came after North Korea missed a key December 31 deadline to disable its main nuclear facilities and give a full declaration of its atomic programs in return for economic aid under a deal agreed in February 2007.

The delay is believed to be over North Korea's reported refusal to provide information on US evidence that the isolated regime maintained a secretive uranium enrichment program alongside its plutonium powered nuclear plant.

White House officials had no immediate reaction to Lefkowitz's comments.

Chief US nuclear envoy Christopher Hill earlier cautioned patience with North Korea, which tested a nuclear device in October 2006.

"There is a new South Korean government to be installed on February 25," he said during a stop in Moscow on his way back to the United States from the region on January 11.

"It would be nice if this was solved ahead of time (...) but I am not setting any new deadline," he said.

Lefkowitz's speech at the conservative American Enterprise Institute forum was based on a prepared text and mirrors a longstanding split within the Bush administration on how to handle North Korea.

Pyongyang on Wednesday accused US hardliners of trying to wreck the nuclear deal, saying the issue would never be resolved by pressure tactics.

Lefkowitz charged that China and South Korea -- the two nations with the most leverage over the North Korean regime - were "unwilling to apply significant pressure on Pyongyang" to abandon its nuclear weapons arsenal.

Because of this, he said, recent six-party talks involving China, the United States, Russia, Japan and the two Koreas, "in actuality, became a bilateral negotiation between the US and North Korea."

Lefkowitz called for a "new approach" in disarmament talks -- "perhaps even bilaterally" -- with North Korea that would permanently link human rights as part of the engagement policy and a critical condition for any normalization of diplomatic relations.

"The six-party talks have not involved human rights. However, there is a valid question of whether this continues to make sense," he said.

He said his proposed new concept of dialogue with North Korea could evolve to resemble the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which emerged with the Helsinki Final Act as a significant step toward reducing Cold War tensions.

As North Korea was unlikely to prefer such new talks, Lefkowitz said any economic assistance to the country must be given only in return for "tangible, verifiable progress on all issues that are a component of the dialogue."

He also called for restrictions on the North Korean regime's access to the US and international banking system - "which has at times been necessary before, given the regime's involvement in money laundering."

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