North Korea Questions U.S. Willingness to Settle Nuke Issue

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North Korea questioned Saturday U.S. willingness to settle an ongoing nuclear dispute after criticisms by Washington included in a report on global democracy.

North Korea's official news agency said the country's Foreign Ministry blasted a recent State Department report that called North Korea a "militarized society" and "dictatorship."

Such criticism from the U.S. left North Korea "skeptical about whether it has true willingness" to peacefully settle the nuclear issue and improve bilateral relations, the Korean Central News Agency quoted the ministry as saying.

The Foreign Ministry called the State Department report an "arrogant and self-justified document" in which the U.S. "let loose a spate of balderdash" against North Korea.

In May, the State Department released "Advancing Freedom and Democracy Reports" on numerous countries.

The report on North Korea says it is a "closed and highly militarized society" and a "dictatorship under the absolute rule of Kim Jong Il."

North Korea is highly sensitive to criticism of its political system and society, and often responds with harsh rhetoric and threats.

"This cannot but be an intolerable provocation and a serious insult to the dialogue partner," the ministry said of the U.S. report.

It criticized the timing of the release "when the negotiations for the settlement of the nuclear issue and the improvement of the DPRK-U.S. relations are in full swing." DPRK is the abbreviation of North Korea's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

The Foreign Ministry comments came several days after Christopher Hill, the chief U.S. nuclear negotiator, held two days of meetings with his North Korean counterpart, Kim Kye Gwan, in Beijing on the North's delayed declaration of all its nuclear programs.

North Korea had promised to complete the declaration by the end of last year in exchange for its removal from U.S. terrorism and economic sanctions blacklists, which restrict its foreign trade and ability to obtain loans from international development banks.

The declaration would lay out North Korea's nuclear programs to be verified by independent experts and then eventually dismantled.

Hill said Friday in Moscow he was optimistic that negotiations on North Korea's nuclear disarmament would be successful, but refused to say when that could be achieved.

The U.S., China, Japan, Russia and South Korea have been negotiating with North Korea since 2003 in an effort to persuade it to give up its nuclear programs.

Efforts intensified after North Korea carried out an underground nuclear test in October 2006.

As a result of agreements reached in the nuclear talks, North Korea stopped making plutonium and began disabling its nuclear facilities.

The country, however, maintains a stockpile of plutonium believed to be sufficient to produce about a half dozen bombs.

Meanwhile, Kim Sook, South Korea's chief nuclear envoy, said Saturday that he and Kim Kye Gwan "discussed a wide range of issues related to the six-party talks" in Beijing on Friday, but did not elaborate.

Separately, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported Saturday that North Korea fired three short-range, ship-to-ship missiles Friday in waters off its west coast.

Citing government officials, the report said the tests appeared to be routine and were not intended as a provocation. South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff and Defense Ministry said they could not confirm the report, citing intelligence matters.