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N. KOREA REBUFFS OFFER ON N-TALKS

In a last-ditch effort to rescue the nuclear freeze agreement with North Korea, the United States on Friday offered to raise negotiations to a senior level, but North Korea gave no indication that it wanted to start talking again.

Instead, North Korea confirmed Friday that it had broken off talks with the United States on implementing a $4.5 billion nuclear accord and blamed the failure on the United States.Kim Jong U, the senior North Korean negotiator, told reporters in Berlin before heading back to the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, that Washington's "inflexible and unreasonable" demands had blocked an agreement.

The impasse centers around North Korea's insistence that a U.S. company, rather than a South Korean one, be designated as the primary contractor in building two light-water nuclear reactors.

The Americans insist that in deference to the South Koreans, who will be paying for a large portion of the deal, the reactors be South Korean models and that a South Korean company be the primary contractor in the decade-long project.

North Korea repeatedly threatened to resume the operation of some nuclear facilities Friday, the target date for hammering out the details of the accord reached six months ago. That agreement was to provide North Korea with $4.5 billion in nuclear reactors and other economic assistance in exchange for its freezing and eventually dismantling its nascent nuclear weapons program.

In a briefing for reporters, Robert C. Gallucci, the chief U.S. negotiator, declined to say whether he considered the situation at an impasse or whether the United States expected North Korea to carry out its threat to restart its nuclear facilities.

Senior administration officials have said that such a resumption would force the United States to seek economic sanctions on North Korea.

"The talks in Berlin have broken down," Gallucci said, adding, "I don't know what they're going to do. I just would prefer to say that we will wait and see what they do, and as we have in the past we'll respond to what they do."

A number of Republican lawmakers have called for economic sanctions against North Korea if it resumes its nuclear program. Sen. Frank H. Murkowski, R-Alaska, who recently visited North Korea, said Thursday that he would ask President Clinton to urge U.S. allies to impose economic sanctions on North Korea if it does so.

Earlier Friday, Secretary of State Warren Christopher told reporters that he wanted to raise the level of the talks and proposed to North Korea that Gallucci represent the U.S. side.

North Korea has not responded to the invitation to restart higher-level talks, which would take place in Geneva, senior State Department officials said.

Although the proposal to upgrade the talks suggested a concession by Washington, Gallucci insisted that the United States was not rewarding North Korea for obstruction by upgrading the talks.

"We're not in the reward-penalty business here," he said.