BEIJING—North Korea agreed Tuesday to return to multilateral talks aimed at dismantling its nuclear program, three weeks after it tested a nuclear weapon.
The announcement marked a sudden turnaround for North Korea and came amid signs that China had leaned heavily on its neighbor, even slashing vital oil supplies.
Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the senior U.S. envoy on the nuclear crisis, said he spent seven hours in meetings with his Chinese and North Korean counterparts before obtaining agreement from Pyongyang that it would return to the talks.
"What was important is that they have not made any conditions for attending the talks," Hill said, adding that new negotiations are likely to occur by December or perhaps earlier.
Hill was asked repeatedly at a news conference how China persuaded North Korea to yield, but he declined to comment. As recently as last week, North Korea insisted that it would return to the talks only if Washington lifted financial restrictions, which were imposed 13 months ago after U.S. officials accused North Korea of counterfeiting U.S. currency.
President Bush said resumption of the talks was a positive step, but that much difficult work needed to be done before negotiations occur. "We'll continue to resolve this in a peaceful way," Bush said at the White House.
Russia welcomed the breakthrough as "very positive," but Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso warned that Pyongyang shouldn't return to talks boasting of its nuclear prowess, following the Oct. 9 test that made it the globe's eighth declared nuclear power.
Earlier in the day, before word of the diplomatic breakthrough, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao denied that China had cut oil deliveries to North Korea.
Chinese trade data released earlier this week indicated that China traded no oil with North Korea in September. China normally supplies its neighbor with most of its energy needs. But North Korea's threat to test a nuclear weapon angered China, and five days after the test, Beijing joined in unanimous approval of U.N. Security Council sanctions.
Hill said the renewed talks wouldn't affect the implementation of U.N. sanctions, which call for a ban on trade with North Korea in nuclear materials, major weapons and luxury goods.
He added that his North Korean counterpart, deputy Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan, brought up his country's nuclear test, but didn't say whether it would change the dynamic of negotiations.
Hill praised China for its role in reviving the stalled talks, but cautioned that Washington and its allies need to work out their strategies.
"We don't want to rush into the talks. We want to make sure they are very well planned," he said.
The breakthrough came a little more than a week after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Japan, South Korea and China to forge a common strategy to roll back North Korea's nuclear program.
Hill said he was in the South Pacific attending a regional forum when Rice called him to return to Beijing for urgent informal talks. In Washington, U.S. officials said the Chinese contacted Rice late last week and told her that Kim, North Korea's deputy foreign minister, was coming to Beijing. Rice was told that if Hill also came to Beijing for the meeting, North Korea would agree to a resumption of the six-party talks, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the diplomacy.
The officials said it took Rice a couple of days to gain administration-wide approval for Hill to meet with the North Koreans, but they didn't know whether there was resistance from the Office of Vice President Dick Cheney, who in the past has opposed negotiations with Pyongyang.
Hill said Kim insisted only that U.S. financial sanctions against banks dealing with North Korea be discussed during new six-nation talks, which bring together the two Koreas, China, Russia, the United States and Japan.
"We do want to resolve these, but it also depends on the DPRK's (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) willingness to get out of the illicit activities business," Hill said.
Washington says Pyongyang sells missile systems to unstable Middle Eastern nations and has developed a vast global criminal network to counterfeit U.S. currency and to peddle bogus cigarettes, narcotics and fake pharmaceuticals.
U.S. officials say the criminal networks could allow North Korea to sell a nuclear bomb to an enemy of the United States, perhaps even to a terrorist group.
Most recently, the Greek newspaper Kathimerini reported over the weekend that a North Korean-registered ship off the Aegean island of Lesbos was intercepted Saturday with 500,000 packets of contraband cigarettes aboard. Six crewmembers, all Ukrainian, were arrested, the newspaper said.
China first started hosting the six-nation talks in 2003. They proceeded through five rounds before breaking off last November.
At a fourth round, in September 2005, North Korea and the five other nations agreed on a statement calling for Pyongyang to dismantle its nuclear program in exchange for security guarantees, and energy and other assistance.
(Warren P. Strobel in Washington and McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Emi Doi in Tokyo contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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