North Korea demands recognition as nuclear arms state

SEOUL (REUTERS) - North Korea demanded on Tuesday that it be recognised as a nuclear weapons state, rejecting a US condition that Pyongyang give up its nuclear arms programme before talks can begin.

The North's Rodong Sinmun newspaper rejected as groundless and unacceptable the US and South Korean condition that it agrees to dismantle its nuclear weapons and suspend missile launches.

"If the DPRK sits at a table with the US, it has to be a dialogue between nuclear weapons states, not one side forcing the other to dismantle nuclear weapons," the newspaper said, referring to the North by its official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

But the United States firmly rejected North Korea's demand.

"North Korea's demand to be recognised as a nuclear weapons state is neither realistic nor acceptable," Mr Thomas Countryman, US Assistant Secretary for International Security and Non-proliferation, told Reuters in Geneva where he is heading the delegation to talks on the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

After weeks of tension on the Korean peninsula, including North Korean threats of nuclear war, the North has in recent days begun to at least talk about dialogue in response to calls for talks from both the United States and South Korea.

A White House spokesman said this month that North Korea would need to show it was serious about abandoning its nuclear ambitions for talks to be meaningful.

North Korea signed a denuclearisation-for-aid deal in 2005 but later backed out of that pact. It now says its nuclear arms are a "treasured sword" that it will never give up. It conducted its third nuclear test in February.

That triggered new UN sanctions which in turn led to a dramatic intensification of North Korea's threats of nuclear strikes against South Korea and the United States.

But in a sign that the hostility was easing, North Korea last Thursday offered the United States and South Korea a list of conditions for talks, including the lifting of UN sanctions.

The United States responded by saying it awaited "clear signals" that North Korea would halt its nuclear weapons activities.

North Korea has a long record of making threats to secure concessions from the United States and South Korea, only to repeat the process later. Both the United States and the South have said in recent days that the cycle must cease.