U.S.-N. Korea talks to start today

Nuclear weapons to be central issue as 6-month impasse ends


BEIJING - U.S. envoys arrived yesterday for talks with North Korea on its nuclear weapons program, breaking a six-month diplomatic impasse and at least temporarily easing fears of a military confrontation between the Korean War enemies.

James A. Kelly, assistant secretary of state for Asia and Pacific affairs, is leading the U.S. delegation at the trilateral talks, which include China.

The talks, scheduled to start this morning and continue through Friday, will be the first direct negotiations since October, when North Korea acknowledged that it had begun to enrich uranium in contravention of a 1994 pact to end its nuclear weapons program.

The face-to-face meeting, which will be held out of the media spotlight, has raised hopes in the region that a peaceful solution to the crisis is possible after months of belligerence on both sides.

North Korea is viewed as highly reluctant to accede to U.S. demands that it give up its nuclear program, which it has used as a bargaining chip in an effort to extract vital economic and food aid from the West and to help preserve the power of its insular government.

To underscore the point, North Korea engaged in brinkmanship on the eve of the talks. The government said in the English translation of a statement issued over the weekend that it had started to reprocess spent nuclear fuel rods.

Though North Korea subsequently retracted the statement, the government made it clear that it could at any time take that crucial step toward producing plutonium for nuclear bombs.

It is also unclear how committed the Bush administration is to reaching a deal. Senior officials in the Pentagon and Vice President Dick Cheney's office have warned against allowing North Korea to blackmail the United States into offering aid or other benefits in exchange for an agreement not to develop nuclear weapons.

They warned that the North Koreans might violate a new agreement, just as they did the 1994 agreement negotiated by the Clinton administration.

China, a traditional ally of North Korea and its economic lifeline to the outside world, has backed the U.S. position that the Korean peninsula should remain free of nuclear weapons.

President Bush said Sunday that he expected China to help exert pressure on North Korea.

"China is assuming a very important responsibility," Bush said of that country's willingness to take part in the negotiations.

Officials in Beijing say China will play more of a mediating role and that the United States and North Korea will have to work out an agreement.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry, confirming yesterday for the first time that the talks would be held, said it expects modest results.

The ministry said the talks are intended to allow the United States and North Korea to understand each other's position more clearly.

"We hope that the talks will be conducive to relevant parties for having a better knowledge and to relieve the tensions," said Liu Jianchao, the Foreign Ministry spokesman.

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