KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Blaming the United States for pushing it into a corner, North Korea rejected demands it give up its nuclear weapons program during an acrimonious opening round of talks Tuesday with Japan on establishing diplomatic ties, Japanese officials said.
The talks were the first the countries have held in two years on establishing ties, and hopes were high North Korea would offer some sort of concession on the nuclear issue and growing outrage in Japan over the kidnapping of its citizens in the 1970s and '80s.
But along with ignoring calls to halt its nuclear weapons development, the North strongly rebuffed Japan on the abduction issue, heightening an already emotional tug-of-war between the Asian neighbors.
"Not much progress," Japanese delegation chief Katsunari Suzuki said as he returned from the talks.
Still, officials said talks would continue as scheduled Wednesday.
In Washington, Secretary of State Colin Powell warned that North Korea faces a grim economic future unless it complies with growing international demands to surrender the nuclear program.
"No North Korean child can eat enriched uranium," Powell told a news conference. "It is fool's gold for North Korea."
Since the North acknowledged its nuclear arms program this month, Japan has insisted scrapping it was a precondition for normalization between the longtime rivals.
The North "completely denied" calls for the country to give up its nuclear weapons program, a senior Japanese delegation official said. The North blamed concerns over its nuclear weapons program on the United States, saying the hard-line U.S. stance against it was the "root of the problem," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
North Korea has long justified efforts to bolster its military by claiming the presence of tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Japan and South Korea is a threat against which it must be able to defend itself.
"Japan wants to focus on the abduction and security issues," said Pak Ryong Yeon, the North Korean delegation's No. 2 official. "But our thinking is, that if we work toward diplomatic ties, then the security issues will be solved along the way."
North Korea acknowledged the secret nuclear weapons program to a visiting senior U.S. official this month. For Japan, the news was especially frightening because Pyongyang has demonstrated that it can fire missiles well beyond Japan's main islands. And with nearly 50,000 U.S. troops stationed in Japan, it would likely be a primary target should war break out.
At a summit on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings in Mexico over the weekend, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi joined President Bush and South Korean President Kim Dae-jung in demanding Pyongyang end its nuclear program in a "verifiable way."
But Tokyo has wavered over how tough a line to take with North Korea and has chosen to continue dialogue for the time being.
"This is just the first stage," Koizumi said after returning from Mexico. "Things are just getting started, but we will negotiate strenuously."
The normalization talks are the offshoot of an unprecedented Sept. 17 summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and Koizumi. But the nuclear issue and Japanese anger over the abductions has soured the budding detente.
Revelations that only five Japanese abductees survive from the 13 kidnapped by North Korea caused widespread anger in Japan.
The five survivors are now in Japan for their first homecoming. But Tokyo announced last week it will not return them to the North as planned and is demanding their seven children, as well as the American husband of one, be allowed to travel to Japan.
In Tuesday's talks, the North Koreans accused Japan of breaking a promise to return the five, prompting Japan to remind the North that the five abductees were "the victims of a criminal act."
Even so, Japanese officials acknowledged they did not persuade the North to set a date for the children's departure.
North Korean officials have criticized Japan for overreacting to the abduction issue, saying it was insignificant compared to Japan's brutal colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 until its World War II defeat in 1945.
The North was expected to press Japan Wednesday for compensation for the colonial period and economic aid.