WASHINGTON (Reuters) - North Korea, which is resisting verification of its atomic programs, should not expect the incoming Obama administration to offer easier terms, the top U.S. nuclear negotiator said on Tuesday.
Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill said talks in Beijing last week broke down over North Korea's unwillingness to commit to inspections and other steps that are "standard the world over" when verifying nuclear disarmament.
He said it was not clear whether the reclusive state was afraid of embarrassing revelations about its nuclear activities or merely waiting for the transfer of power from President George W. Bush to Barack Obama on January 20.
"I would be frankly surprised if they're going to get some better deal from the next administration," Hill said in remarks to the Asia Society in Washington.
Obama has voiced support for efforts by Japan, Russia, China, the United States and South Korea to talk North Korea into dropping its nuclear arms ambitions. But he has criticized Bush for failing to try high-level diplomacy with Pyongyang.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters at the United Nations that the Bush administration was leaving its successor "a pretty good framework" for resolving differences with Pyongyang through six-party disarmament talks.
The latest round of those talks failed to reach a deal on verifying North Korea's nuclear operations, a key step in a 2005 pact under which Pyongyang agreed to give up its nuclear weapons and facilities in exchange for energy aid and better relations with the international community.
Rice said North Korea had given the necessary assurances beforehand but refused to write them down at the talks. "At some point those assurances are going to have to be written down. But there is, in fact, a verification protocol and a set of assurances that the five are agreed to and that the North Koreans at least privately ... had also agreed to," she said.
North Korea responded with a threat to slow disablement of its main nuclear plant after Washington said energy aid to Pyongyang would be suspended without a verification accord.
Among five countries negotiating with North Korea, Russia disputed the U.S. assertion that future fuel shipments would be halted until there was progress on verification terms.
Hill, however, played down disagreement over the provision of the remaining 200,000 ton(ne)s of the 1 million ton(ne)s of heavy fuel oil promised to North Korea, saying the lack of progress in talks made it hard to attract fuel donations.
"As a practical matter, it is difficult to get countries to contribute fuel oil to a stalled process," he said.
Countries outside the five-nation group have been asked to to give North Korea energy aid, because Japan has opted against donating oil to North Korea until Pyongyang resolves a bitter dispute over abducted Japanese citizens, said Hill.
The United States and its partners are trying to get North Korea to commit formally to accepting scientific verification of key questions, including how much plutonium it has produced and how much of that key bomb ingredient its still has.
Beyond accounting for plutonium, the North Koreans "have a lot to come clean on" over their suspected highly enriched uranium program for creating bomb fuel and on Pyongyang's past nuclear cooperation with Syria, said Hill.
North Korea has been in negotiations with the United States over its nuclear arms program for more than 15 years. The issue took on greater urgency after Pyongyang conducted its first nuclear test explosion in October 2006.
Additional reporting by Patrick Worsnip at the United Nations; Editing by Eric Walsh