South Korea Cautious Over `Deal' Between US and North

SOUTH Korea said Jan. 4 that it was premature to believe communist North Korea and the United States would strike a deal soon on nuclear inspections.

North Korea watchers in Seoul agreed that optimistic sentiments from Washington about an agreement soon with the secretive Pyongyang government were overstated, and they said negotiators should be cautious until the last minute.

``Talks between Washington and Pyongyang are going in the right direction, there has been progress. But the deal is not something that can be reached overnight,'' said a foreign ministry official.

``It is premature to be talking about a deal being reached very soon,'' he said.

The US said on Jan. 3 that a deal could be wrapped up soon on inspections of North Korea's nuclear sites. The US has been leading an effort to persuade North Korea to open its nuclear facilities to international inspection in order to allay fears that it is building atomic arms.

Months of unproductive haggling between the US and North Korean officials failed to break the deadlock until late last month, when there were signs a deal was in the offing.

North Korean leader Kim II Sung said on Jan. 1 that his country had agreed to a joint statement with Washington paving the way for the nuclear dispute to be ``settled fairly.'' He did not give details, but in a later announcement North Korea's foreign ministry suggested international monitors would only be allowed into the country's seven declared nuclear sites for one-time inspections. This falls short of the regular visits required by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

A senior official in Washington would not discuss details, but indicated the Pyongyang announcement reflected the essence of the agreement.

North Korea threatened last March to withdraw from the treaty, increasing fears in the US and South Korea that it may move aggressively ahead with a nuclear arsenal.

News reports have speculated that if agreement on nuclear inspections was reached smoothly, the US and North Korean officials would meet again to discuss a ``package deal'' of economic incentives in return for broader inspection rights.

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