By JOHN ARMSTRONG political editor

New Zealand has been hoodwinked into pouring millions into North Korea, thinking the money would help to stop the rogue state's nuclear weapons programme.

So far, New Zealand has contributed $4.5 million to an international scheme that was supposed to halt North Korea's development of nuclear weapons.

Diplomatic efforts to force the rogue state to comply with an eight-year-old agreement to end its nuclear weapons programme were high on the agenda during leaders' meetings at the Apec summit in Mexico.

North Korea agreed to stop developing nuclear weapons in 1994 in exchange for help from the United States and other countries in building two light-water nuclear power plants and supplying heavy fuel oil.

New Zealand was one of the countries that agreed to assist North Korea through the Korean Energy Development Organisation (KEDO) to help it develop an alternative energy programme which did not involve the potential for producing highly enriched uranium for weapons development.

But two weeks ago Pyongyang admitted to the Americans that it had been engaged in a clandestine uranium-enrichment programme.

Foreign Minister Phil Goff, who was at Apec, said he had raised the matter with US Secretary of State Colin Powell over dinner.

"Under KEDO, North Korea accepted the obligation to freeze and dismantle its nuclear programme and accept inspections of its nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

"Those commitments must now be honoured by North Korea.

"This is a matter which, if necessary, can be taken to the United Nations Security Council for resolution."

But Mr Goff said the view among Apec countries was that dialogue should continue for the time being with the impoverished North Koreans, with pressure coming on the regime from Russia and China in particular.

Neither super power wanted a nuclear-capable Korean peninsula. "Our voice will be part of the pressure."

Sanctions remained an option if diplomacy was unsuccessful.

New Zealand would not act unilaterally and would "go with the pack".

"They have dishonoured their undertaking to us and repeated reassurances to us that they were not developing such a programme.

"If we feel angry about that, imagine how the Japanese, the South Koreans and the Americans feel."

But halting New Zealand's contribution to the alternative energy programme would achieve little apart from a sense of self-satisfaction if done in isolation.

After shutting down its reactors in 1994, North Korea agreed to secure storage of 8000 spent fuel rods that could be reprocessed to extract plutonium.

US Government and International Atomic Energy Agency estimates say those rods hold about five bombs' worth of plutonium.

North Korea's nuclear weapons programme is based on enriched uranium, not plutonium.

The uranium enrichment programme it plans apparently would make enough material to build one or two nuclear weapons a year.

US officials do not believe North Korea can make thermonuclear weapons, which require much more expertise, material and precision than the crude weapons it is suspected of having.

Thermonuclear weapons are hundreds or thousands of times more powerful than crude nuclear weapons.

* New Zealand established diplomatic relations with North Korea in March last year. Since 1995 it has contributed $1.4 million in aid to development initiatives in the North.