BAGRAM (Afghanistan) - NORTH Korean leader Kim Jong Il is 'trying to test the process', US President George W. Bush said on Monday following the breakdown of six-party disarmament talks last week.
North Korea threatened on Saturday to slow disablement of its main nuclear plant after Washington said energy aid to the state had been suspended due to failed talks on verifying the North's nuclear operations.
'Right now what you are watching is the leader of North Korea is trying to test the process,' Mr Bush told reporters aboard Air Force One on his way to Afghanistan from Iraq.
'The objective is to keep our partners firm with the understanding that the six-party process is the best way to solve the North Korean issue,' Mr Bush said.
The US State Department said all five countries negotiating with North Korea - Japan, Russia, China, the United States and South Korea - agreed that future fuel shipments would not go forward until there was progress on a so-called verification protocol with Pyongyang.
North Korea's nuclear envoy Kim Kye-gwan was quoted by Kyodo news agency as telling reporters in Beijing that Pyongyang would 'probably adjust the pace of disablement at nuclear facilities if (the aid) is suspended'.
North Korea has been in negotiations with the United States over its nuclear arms programme for more than a decade and the issue took on extra urgency after Pyongyang held its first nuclear test explosion in October 2006.
Two months ago, the Bush administration said it was removing North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, based on Pyongyang's oral commitment to a verification plan.
'This is not the first time that he's tested (the process),' Mr Bush said. 'The key is to be firm and patient with a structure that will enable the next president or the next president after that to be able to solve the problem diplomatically.'
Experts believe Pyongyang is holding out on a verification protocol until the Obama administration takes over next month.
Russia, however, said it was unaware of any agreement about suspending fuel shipments.
'The US State Department's recent statement ... surprised us,' deputy foreign minister and Russian envoy to the six party talks, Mr Alexei Borodavkin, told RIA Novosti news agency on Saturday.
He said the Russian delegation 'had not agreed upon any joint arrangements with the United States about a delay or suspension of fuel oil shipments to North Korea as an offset against dismantling of the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Centre'.
Under an agreement last year, up to 1 million tonnes of heavy fuel aid was promised to North Korea as a reward for progress on denuclearisation. Countries outside the five-nation group also have volunteered to supply North Korea with energy.
By mid-November, North Korea had received about half of the amount promised by the five and the United States has provided about 200,000 tons of that, the State Department said. -- REUTERS