U.S. says suspends North Korea energy aid until deal

The United States said energy aid to North Korea had been suspended, and the leaders of Japan and South Korea condemned Pyongyang for being uncooperative at this week's failed multilateral nuclear talks, Reuters reported.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said all five countries negotiating with North Korea -- Japan, Russia, China, the United States and South Korea -- had agreed that future fuel shipments would not go forward until there was progress on a so-called verification protocol with Pyongyang.

"This is an action-for-action process," McCormack told reporters in Washington. "Future fuel shipments aren't going to move forward absent a verification regime ... they (the North Koreans) understand that."

Multilateral talks in Beijing with North Korea failed on Thursday to break an impasse on checking Pyongyang's nuclear declarations, scuppering the Bush administration's hopes for a diplomatic success before it hands over to President-elect Barack Obama on January 20.

North Korea has been in negotiations with the United States over its nuclear arms program for more than a decade and the issue took on extra urgency after Pyongyang held its first nuclear test explosion in October 2006.

Experts believe Pyongyang is holding out on a verification protocol until the Obama administration takes over next month.

Meanwhile, Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak condemned Pyongyang for its uncooperative stance the talks in Beijing.

Aso and Lee met in southern Japan on Saturday ahead of a rare trilateral summit with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao at which the financial crisis that is battering their economies will top the agenda.

"Both leaders from the two countries expressed their regret that North Korea showed an uncooperative attitude toward joint efforts by the other participating countries (in the talks)," South Korea's presidential office said in a statement.

Under an agreement last year, up to 1 million tonnes of heavy fuel aid was promised to energy-starved North Korea as a reward for progress on denuclearization. Countries outside the five-nation group also have volunteered to supply North Korea with energy as a reward.

By mid-November North Korea had received about half of the amount promised by the five and the United States has provided about 200,000 tons of that, the State Department said.

An unspecified amount of fuel was delivered this month by Russia and will finish being offloaded in North Korea next week, State Department spokesman Robert McInturff told Reuters.

But McCormack said Russia had made clear in this week's talks in Beijing that any future shipments would not be made until North Korea agreed to the verification protocol.

The U.S. negotiator with North Korea, Christopher Hill, returned to Washington after the failed Beijing talks and briefed U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Friday, said McCormack, adding that Hill would continue trying to get a deal.

"There's the opportunity for North Korea to sign on to this verification protocol," he said. "That still exists. We'll see. The ball is in their court."

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