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U.S. hopes for immediate progress at upcoming North Korea talks

PHUKET, Thailand—Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her aides said Sunday they would press for immediate progress at disarmament talks with North Korea later this month, hoping to avoid the impasses that have snarled previous rounds of negotiations.

North Korea agreed Saturday to rejoin the six-nation talks over its nuclear weapons program. The talks were in limbo for 13 months.

Pyongyang's decision is "a very good thing. But it is only a start," Rice said at a press conference in Beijing before leaving for Thailand.

A senior administration official disclosed that North Korea has promised, in the upcoming talks, to respond directly for the first time to a year-old American proposal to end the crisis.

The meetings are scheduled to begin in Beijing the last week of July.

"We're not interested in just having these talks to mark time," the senior official told reporters on Rice's flight to Phuket, a Thai resort devastated by last December's tsunami. "We have really emphasized the need to make progress."

The official is directly involved in the negotiations, but spoke on condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities.

The Bush administration's urgency appears to stem from the fact that North Korea is suspected of expanding its nuclear arsenal while the diplomatic process meant to disarm it has gone nowhere.

Some members of President Bush's own administration, along with Republican members of Congress, have expressed impatience with the entire effort.

U.S. officials indicated they plan an early test of whether Pyongyang is really willing to trade away its atomic weapons programs for economic and energy aid, and for assurances it will not be attacked.

"I do believe that North Korea has a bar to pass to show that it's ... determined to give up its nuclear weapons," Rice said in an interview in Beijing with Fox News, underscoring Washington's skepticism.

Yet, if the new round of talks proves as fruitless as three prior ones, President Bush has no good options.

Military action is unlikely because the North could respond by attacking U.S. ally South Korea, while American armed forces are tied down in Iraq. And economic sanctions are opposed by China, which is the North's key trading partner and has a seat on the U.N. Security Council.

The deal to revive the talks was cut Saturday by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill and North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan, over a dinner of steak and cheesecake dessert in the Chinese capital.

Hill began by repeating U.S. assurances that Bush does not question North Korea's sovereignty, the senior official said.

Kim responded by proposing to begin negotiations the week of July 25, the official said. He also agreed that North Korea would announce it is returning "for the purpose of achieving a de-nuclearization agreement," as Washington wanted.

The U.S. proposal, which has never been fully made public, calls on North Korea to make a "strategic decision" that it will abandon nuclear weapons and allow inspectors to verify that is happening.

The United States and other members of the talks—China, Japan, South Korea and Russia—would provide heavy fuel oil for North Korea's limping economy. Eventually, North Korea would be given security assurances and direct talks with the United States.

North Korean spokesmen have complained the offer is too front-loaded with demands on it, and not enough rewards.

"If they have concerns about the sequencing and front-loading, they need to tell us that," the official said, indicating American flexibility.

This round of talks is likely to continue longer than previous ones, which lasted a few days, and will try to get beyond rote recitations of long-standing positions by the sides, he said. Hill is expected to lead the U.S. delegation at the talks.

The United States helped smooth the way to the resumption of the talks by cooling its harsh rhetoric toward the regime of North Korean dictator Kim Il-sung.

At the Beijing press conference, Rice pointedly declined to repeat her earlier labeling of North Korea as among the "outposts of tyranny," which left Pyongyang fuming and demanding new assurances about its sovereignty.

"I think everyone knows our views of the North Korean regime," she said simply.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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