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U.S., North Korea hold 2 days of talks

BERLIN—Senior U.S. and North Korean envoys held an unprecedented second day of direct talks here Wednesday in an attempt to accelerate stalled international negotiations on eliminating the North's nuclear weapons.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill called the talks with North Korean negotiator Kim Gye-gwan "useful" and said they were aimed at ensuring progress when formal, six-nation negotiations resume, possibly at the end of the month.

The talks were a significant step for the Bush administration because it's largely refused direct engagement with North Korea, part of President Bush's "axis of evil." Hill, the administration's point man, has never had such a lengthy encounter with Kim, and all previous sessions have been held in Beijing alongside six-nation talks.

In an indication that the administration remains divided over how to proceed, John Bolton, who resigned three weeks ago as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said in Tokyo that the six-nation negotiations had "failed irrecoverably."

Japan's Kyoto news agency quoted Bolton, an ally of hardliners led by Vice President Dick Cheney, as saying that the North Korean nuclear threat can be resolved only by the collapse of dictator Kim Jong Il's government.

The Berlin talks came three months after Kim's Stalinist regime detonated its first underground nuclear test, prompting worldwide condemnation.

Hill's diplomacy, which coincided with a visit to the German capital by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, suggested that the administration might be prepared to modify financial measures it took to restrict North Korea's access to hard currency.

Other parties to the six-nation talks have been pressing the administration to modify the restrictions in an effort to improve the prospects for the nuclear negotiations, and Treasury Department officials are due to hold separate talks with North Korea on the measures sometime this month.

A Macau bank, Banco Delta Asia, froze North Korea's hard currency accounts based on U.S. charges that money in the accounts came from North Korean trafficking in illegal narcotics, cigarettes and counterfeit U.S. currency.

North Korea's cash-strapped regime denies the allegations. The six-party talks over North Korea's nuclear program, which include China, Russia, Japan and South Korea in addition to the U.S. and North Korea, stalled when Pyongyang demanded that Washington abandon the measures.

"Resolving the issue is separate from the six-party talks," State Department spokesman Tom Casey said in Washington. "It's something that will require action on the part of the North Koreans to address."

"The question is not somehow that the U.S. is going to change its law or change its policy on this issue," said Casey.

Treasury Department spokeswoman Molly Millerwise said that a U.S. investigation into Banco Delta Asia "only further confirmed the range of illicit activity North Korea is engaged in."

Hill, in a speech to the American Academy in Berlin, made an unusually forward-leaning statement about U.S. willingness to establish ties with North Korea after it implements a September 2005 agreement on abandoning its nuclear weapons program.

"We really look forward to establishing, consistent with our obligations under the September `05 agreement ... a normal relationship with North Korea," he said. "Obviously this is via a bilateral process which will take some time. But we are prepared to go on that road."

But Rice, asked about Hill's statement, emphasized that there's no change in U.S. policy.

Any normalization of relations "is very clearly in the context of the denuclearization—complete, verifiable denuclearization—and I should say irreversible denuclearization (of) the Korean peninsula," she said at a press conference with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

The September 2005 agreement calls on North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons and weapons-related facilities. The other five nations pledged to provide economic assistance and discuss providing a light-water nuclear reactor to help the energy-starved North after Pyongyang takes irreversible steps in that direction.

The last round of six-nation talks, held in late December, ended inconclusively.

Hill, who'll travel next to South Korea, Japan and China, said there were some positive signs last month. He said that his aim is "to make real progress" when the formal negotiations reconvene.

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(Landay reported from Washington. Tim Johnson in Beijing contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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