BEIJING—North Korea has agreed to rejoin the stalled six-nation talks on its nuclear weapons programs in the last week of July, the United States, China and North Korea announced Saturday.
The surprise announcement, which came after weeks of intensive diplomacy among North Korea, its neighbors and Washington, was made during a visit by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the Chinese capital.
North Korea's agreement to return to the talks, which were last held in June 2004, is a rare bit of hope in a long-running crisis that has rattled Northeast Asia and challenged the Bush administration.
But it remains far from clear whether the negotiations will solve the problem anytime soon.
Three previous rounds made no discernible progress toward U.S. demands that North Korea dismantle its nuclear weapons programs in return for security assurance and economic assistance.
"We have agreed that (North Korea's return) is only a first step," Rice said at a joint appearance Sunday morning with Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing. "The real issue now is to make progress." She thanked China for its efforts to get the talks going again.
Li added, "Let us continue to work together to try to achieve our shared goal, that is a Korean peninsula that is free of nuclear weapons."
Senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the final deal was struck at a dinner meeting in Beijing on Saturday between U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill and Kim Gye Gwan, North Korea's vice minister of foreign affairs.
The official said that during the dinner, the North Koreans had specifically agreed that the purpose of the talks was to denuclearize the Korean peninsula and "they intend to come to make progress."
Prickly North Korea had made a shifting series of demands it said must be met before it would return to the negotiations. Among those was insistence that the Bush administration apologize for Rice's labeling of the country, during her Senate confirmation hearings, as among the "outposts of tyranny."
Pyongyang's state-run Korean Central News Agency said comments by Hill at the Beijing dinner amounted to a "retraction" of that remark.
"The U.S. side clarified its official stand to recognize (North Korea) as a sovereign state, not to invade it and hold bilateral talks within the framework of the six-party talks," KCNA reported.
U.S. officials were not available for comment on the report. But Washington has markedly lowered its harsh rhetoric in recent months, with President Bush pointedly using a polite "Mr." to describe North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il.
The meeting between Hill and Kim Gye Gwan was itself a rare high-level contact between the United States and North Korea, which have no diplomatic ties.
Washington has resisted efforts by North Korea to make the nuclear crisis solely a bilateral issue between it and the United States, and insisted substantive negotiations take place in the six-nation format. Those talks also include China, Japan, Russia and South Korea.
North Korea is believed to have enough fissile nuclear material for six, or possibly nine, weapons. Whether it is actually capable of constructing a device and delivering it to a target is less clear.
The United States and its partners are insisting that North Korea abandon an alleged program to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons, and an older, parallel effort involving plutonium reprocessing.
Key issues at the talks will be inspections to verify such dismantlement, and the phasing of aid and other incentives with steps North Korea is supposed to take.
A senior U.S. official who is directly involved in the diplomacy portrayed North Korea's change of heart as a result of concerted messages from South Korea, China and others that it could not expect much-needed energy assistance unless it returned to the negotiating table and acted in good faith.
South Korea's unification minister, Chung Dong Young, held a rare meeting with Kim Jong-Il on June 17 and conveyed an offer of massive energy assistance—but only if North Korea would rejoin the negotiations.
"It was clear to the North Koreans that significant assistance in energy ... was not going to come from the South" without a resumption of talks, the official said.
"Their (energy) situation is not improving," he added.
In its first term, the Bush administration relied heavily in its approach to North Korea on threats of sanctions or action by the U.N. Security Council. That approach was favored by former top State Department arms control official John Bolton, whose nomination to be ambassador to the United Nations is in limbo.
But such threats have not been in evidence in the recent diplomatic attempts to lure North Korea back to the table.
North Korea indicated it would be willing to rejoin the negotiations and agree to a specific date on June 30, the senior U.S. officials said, when U.S. ambassador Joseph DeTrani met on the sidelines of an academic conference in New York with North Korean official Ri Gun.
The North Koreans also demanded that they be treated with respect and as an equal partner, the official said.
The United States agreed to reconfirm the deal while Rice was in Beijing at the start of a four-nation East Asia trip.
Rice, speaking to reporters Friday en route to Asia, said just reconvening the talks would not be enough.
"Obviously, you don't have talks just for the sake of talks; you have talks to try and make progress," Rice said.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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