Choe Sang-hun

Beijing meet seals the pact

BEIJING: North Korea agreed on Tuesday to rejoin six-nation nuclear disarmament talks, the Chinese and U.S. governments said, in a surprise diplomatic breakthrough three weeks after the communist regime conducted its first known atomic test.

The agreement was struck in a day of unpublicized three-way discussions between the senior envoys from the United States, China and North Korea at a government guesthouse in Beijing. The U.S. negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, said that the six-nation negotiations could resume as early as November or December.

``We took a step today toward getting this process back on track. This process has suffered a lot in recent weeks by the actions the DPRK has made,'' Hill told reporters afterward, using the initials for the North's formal name.

The agreement is one of the first signs of easing tensions since North Korea conducted the underground detonation on Oct. 9, defying warnings from both the United States and Japan and its staunchest ally, China.

It also marks a diplomatic victory for China and the United States, which worked closely together in the wake of the test, but especially for Beijing. Though stung by Pyongyang's test, China had counseled against punishing North Korea too harshly, weakening a U.N. resolution sanctioning Pyongyang, and suggested leaving a path for diplomacy.

``One of the very important dynamics of the past weeks has been a very close joint China-U.S. effort on this,'' Hill said. For the North, he added later, ``I don't think the situation is getting any easier for their staying away from the talks.''

President George W. Bush on Tuesday hailed the agreement and credited China with helping to bring it about. ``I am pleased and I want to thank the Chinese,'' Bush told reporters at the White House.

Both the U.S. and North Korea showed flexibility at Tuesday's meeting. Hill said Washington agreed to discuss the financial sanctions Washington imposed on North Korea a year ago as part of the renewed disarmament talks.

Pyongyang, which had boycotted the negotiations for a year to protest the sanctions, did not make their lifting a condition for resuming the talks, Hill said.

At the talks, Pyongyang's negotiator, Kim Gye Gwan, ``made the point'' that North Korea considered itself a nuclear power, Hill said. ``I made it very clear that the United States does not accept the DPRK as a nuclear power and neither does China.''

Other partners in the talks - Japan, Russia and South Korea - greeted word of the breakthrough with varying degrees of enthusiasm. South Korea, which like China has urged engagement with Pyongyang, and Russia were positive about the prospects of resuming the negotiations.

``The government hopes that the six-party talks will resume at an early date as agreed, South Korea's Foreign Ministry spokesman Choo Kyu-ho said.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Alexeyev said that Moscow views North Korea's decision as ``extremely positive,'' ITAR-Tass and Interfax news agencies reported.

But Japan, which feels threatened by North Korea's nuclear and missile programs, took a more skeptical line.

While Japan welcomed the prospect of a new round of talks, it ``does not intend to accept North Korea's return to the talks on the premise that it possess nuclear weapons,'' public broadcaster NHK quoted Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso as saying. A resumption of talks ``is conditional on North Korea not possessing nuclear weapons,'' Aso was quoted as saying.

Calls to the North Korean Embassy in Beijing seeking comment went unanswered.

China's Foreign Ministry released a brief statement, the first word of the breakthrough, saying that an agreement was struck on North Korea's rejoining the talks, but issued no other comment.

Hill, the U.S. envoy, cautioned that much work needed to be done to prepare for the resumption of talks.

``We're a long way from our goals here,'' he said. ``I have not broken out the champagne and cigars yet.''

Key in the coming days, Hill said, would be intense preparations by all parties to make sure a new round would deal substantively with an agreement reached at a September 2005 session of the six-party talks. The last meeting, in November, fizzled amid disagreement over steps on implementing the September accord.

Among the issues would be how would North Korea take steps to ultimately give up its nuclear programs, he said. Other issues, such as a South Korean proposal to provide electricity to the economically creaky North, would also likely be explored, he said, as would how to set up mechanism, perhaps a working group, to discuss the U.S. financial sanctions.

Hill described intense backstage Chinese efforts to get the six-party talks on track. Hill said China contacted U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice late last week, asking if she would dispatch him to Beijing for a three-way discussion with North Korea.

Hill, who had been in the South Pacific at a forum of regional governments, cut short a visit to Australia, arriving in Beijing late Monday for Tuesday's talks. - AP