BEIJING -- North Korea agreed yesterday to return to negotiations aimed at halting its nuclear weapons program, three weeks after the regime conducted its first nuclear test.
The reversal was hammered out during a day of informal meetings organized by China that also involved the United States and North Korea.
The North set no conditions for its return to the bargaining table with sessions expected to begin next month, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill told reporters at a hastily arranged news conference.
The talks will take as their starting point the September 2005 Beijing statement, agreed to shortly before Pyongyang walked out, with the eventual goal being the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
In addition to North Korea, China and the United States, the six-party talks also involve South Korea, Japan and Russia.
Also yesterday, North Korea dropped its demand that the U.S. end financial sanctions linked to counterfeiting, money laundering and weapons proliferation before the isolated Stalinist state returns to the bargaining table. Instead, the U.S. financial squeeze, which involves $24 million in a Macau bank, will be considered as a side issue within the six-party framework.
"We need [North Korea] to get out of illicit activities," Hill said. "We didn't start this dance."
The push to impose broader trade sanctions against Pyongyang under the U.N. Security Council will continue, Hill said. The Security Council imposed sanctions last month that restricted trade in missile technology and luxury goods with North Korea.
In Washington, President Bush expressed his pleasure that the six-party talks would resume.
"I've always felt like it is important for the United States to be at the table with other partners when it comes time to addressing this important issue, and so I thank not only the Chinese but the South Koreans, the Japanese and the Russians for agreeing to come back to the table with North Korea," Bush said in televised comments.
The president said the United States would continue to work with nations in the region "to make sure that the current United Nations Security Council resolution is enforced but also to make sure that the talks are effective, that we achieve the results we want, which is a North Korea that abandons her nuclear weapons programs and her nuclear weapons in a verifiable fashion in return for a better way forward for her people."
China has a keen desire to see the six-party talks resume. The North's nuclear test, though of a very low yield, upset regional stability and discredited the six-nation approach to negotiations. Beijing would eventually like to turn these into a regional security organization along the lines of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization - but with itself at the center.
It was not immediately clear what promises or threats Beijing used to get its willful neighbor back to talking. But China has more leverage than anyone else, given that it supplies most of the North's energy and nearly half its food requirements.
A Chinese customs report issued Monday showed Beijing had cut off crude oil shipments to North Korea in September. China's recent tough stance and clear displeasure ultimately were not lost on the North, analysts said.
But an obviously tired Hill warned yesterday that it was too early to celebrate. He added that he would be preparing intensively for the coming meetings, out of which the U.S. wants to see real progress as early as possible.
Analysts said they remained skeptical that this latest move reflects a genuine change of heart by North Korea or that it is willing to eliminate its weapons program and join the global community.
North Korea needs time to prepare a second nuclear test and to marry its nuclear and missile technologies, if those are its objectives, Chinese analysts said.
With a test under its belt, North Korea returns to the talks in a position of strength.
This begs the question, analysts said, whether Pyongyang will really pick up negotiations where it left off 13 months ago or will insist on new conditions reflecting its membership in the nuclear club.
Mark Magnier writes for the Los Angeles Times.