North Korea to resume talks on nuclear weapons

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NORTH KOREA: North Korea has agreed to return to the negotiating table - after more than a year of stalling and name-calling - for a long-awaited fourth round of multilateral talks on the state's nuclear weapons programme.

China will host the talks in Beijing during the week of July 25th.

However, the US and North Korean positions remain just as far apart as when the talks broke down in June last year, leading analysts to doubt that any concrete progress can be made.

Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, cautiously welcomed North Korea's statement but said setting the date was "only a start". "It is not our goal to have talks about talks, but to have progress in the talks," she said yesterday in Beijing, the first stop on a four-country tour of Asia largely focused on the North Korean issue.

Amid intense diplomatic activity over the past few months, Pyongyang had agreed in principle to return to the talks. However, it had failed to say when it would resume the discussions with China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the US.

Negotiations collapsed last year when Pyongyang rejected Washington's offer of economic aid and security assurances once North Korea dismantles its weapons programme. Pyongyang wants upfront rewards.

The breakthrough came at a Chinese-hosted dinner meeting in Beijing between Christopher Hill, the top US negotiator to the talks, and Kim Gye-gwan, North Korea's deputy foreign minister.

"The US side clarified its official stand to recognise the DPRK [ North Korea] as a sovereign state, not to invade it and hold bilateral talks within the framework of the six-party talks," the North's official Korean Central News Agency said.

"The DPRK side interpreted the US side's expression of its stand as a retraction of its remark designating the former as an 'outpost of tyranny' and decided to return to the six-party talks."

Pyongyang had been insisting the US drop its "hostile policies" and apologise for Ms Rice's inclusion of North Korea in her January list of "outposts of tyranny" as a condition for returning to the talks. But Ms Rice denied yesterday suggestions that Pyongyang had agreed to the resumption only after Mr Hill took back the words.

Mr Hill had repeated US assurances in a meeting with North Korean representatives in Beijing on Saturday that Washington recognised North Korea as a sovereign country and had no intention of taking military action against it, she said.

Ms Rice deflected a question about whether North Korea had been offered inducements to return to the talks, but said South Korea had raised with the North its "energy needs". The South has been working on a proposal to lure the North back, which will involve aid and energy assistance. - (Financial Times Service)

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