BEIJING (AP) – Talks on North Korea’s nuclear program were deadlocked Thursday as the communist nation stuck to its refusal to halt atomic bomb development until it receives a nuclear reactor to generate power.

The main U.S. envoy said the North was isolating itself from the other five countries at the talks, which aren’t inclined to fund a reactor or give nuclear technology to a country that withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and kicked out international inspectors.

“We’re in a bit of a standoff at this point,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill said after 2½ days of meetings.

The head of Japan’s delegation, Kenichiro Sasae, called the situation “extremely difficult” and said the negotiations were at a “deadlock.”

“There is no prospect for the reaching of an agreement,” he said.

Quoting unidentified sources at the talks, Japan’s Kyodo news agency reported that North Korea had told the other nations at the negotiations that it would boost its production of nuclear material if its demand for a light-water reactor is not met.

It was offered two light-water reactors as a reward under a 1994 agreement with the United States to give up weapons development brokered by the Clinton administration.

Construction on those reactors was halted in 2002 with the outbreak of the latest nuclear standoff, when U.S. officials said the North admitted to secretly pursuing a nuclear weapons program. The Bush administration has been loudly critical of the earlier deal.

Still, the North’s delegation said Thursday in its first public comments at the talks that getting a reactor would help reassure it that Washington has the “political will to get rid of its hostile policy toward us and peacefully coexist.”

“Providing a light-water reactor is a matter of principle for building trust,” North Korean spokesman Hyun Hak Bong said. “The United States says it cannot give us a light-water reactor no matter what. It is telling us to give up the nuclear (program) first without doing its part.”

Hyun added that the North still hoped to “solve the nuclear issue peacefully through dialogue.”

Hill also repeated pledges to try and resolve the issue diplomatically, but questioned the North’s will to do the same.

“One gets the impression that this is not so much an economic development issue or an energy issue but rather a political issue and an issue relating to the idea that they want to have a sort of trophy project,” the U.S. diplomat said.

The Americans will stay at the talks as long as progress is being made, but Hill said he didn’t get the impression the North would change its mind on the reactor demand.

North Korea “has a rather sad and long history of making decision on things,” he said, adding that the country “not for the first time has chosen to isolate itself.”

Hill said he didn’t have another one-on-one meeting scheduled with the North Koreans, after seeing them already twice during the talks, which also include China, Japan, Russia and South Korea.

On Wednesday, a Washington-based think tank released a satellite photo showing that North Korea’s reactor at Yongbyon has apparently been restarted.

The photo, taken Sunday and released by the Institute for Science and International Security, apparently shows a steam plume rising from the plant’s cooling tower.

The reactor was shut down earlier this year and the North said its fuel rods were removed, a move that would allow it to harvest more weapons-grade plutonium.

North Korea has been offered economic aid, security guarantees from Washington and free electricity from South Korea in exchange for dismantling its nuclear weapons program under a draft agreement proposed at the last round of talks that ended five weeks ago.

The North first raised the reactor demand at the end of those 13 days of meetings, but the sides decided to take a recess with Hill saying at the time the North Koreans would discuss the issue further with officials in their capital.

However, the North appears to have only hardened its position – despite postponing its return two weeks beyond the agreed resumption of talks in professed anger over annual U.S.-South Korean military exercises and Washington’s appointment of a human rights envoy on North Korea.

Even host China, normally upbeat, sounded a tone of pessimism Thursday.

“There are still great differences on certain issues,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said.

North Korea is believed to have reprocessed enough plutonium for at least a half-dozen bombs, and claimed in February that it had nuclear weapons.

However, it hasn’t performed any known nuclear tests that would confirm its arsenal, which Pyongyang says it needs to deter a U.S. invasion. Washington denies it intends to attack.

AP-ES-09-15-05 1817EDT

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