KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) – 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 yesterday 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 yesterday.

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.”

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