BEIJING - After months of loud threats and quiet diplomacy, Pyongyang confirmed reports yesterday that it had agreed to resume talks this month with the United States over the future of North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
In its first pronouncement since agreeing to the talks, North Korea repeated yesterday that the United States should compensate Pyongyang in exchange for freezing its nuclear weapons programs as a first step in resolving a 15 month-old standoff, the Associated Press reported.
"The United States has not at all changed its demand that we first give up our nuclear programs," the North's chief negotiator Kim Ryong Song said, according to pool reports after high-level talks in Seoul between officials from the two Koreas. "What is important is resolving the issue through our proposal of simultaneous action."
The meeting with the United States and four negotiating partners will begin Feb. 25 in Beijing, months later than expected and more than a year into a diplomatic standoff that could spiral into a military confrontation. The last set of meetings, in August, ended inconclusively after three days.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher emphasized that while the Bush administration is willing to see where Pyongyang's proposal leads, it has not changed its ultimate objective: to get rid of North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
"A freeze is not our goal," Boucher said.
Kim of North Korea stressed yesterday that a freeze was a step toward a settlement.
"What we want is that each other lower their guns and live in harmony," Kim said. "We want simultaneous action in that sense, and if the United States cannot implement that in whole, we are demanding as a first step 'freeze vs. compensation,' compensating measures for a freeze."
Kim said progress at the Beijing talks hinged on Washington's stance.
Officials in China and South Korea, who have worked alongside those from the United States, Japan and Russia in confronting North Korea, signaled that they expected progress in this round of talks in getting Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear ambitions.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue said Beijing hopes the six-way talks will produce a "written consensus" to resolve the impasse.
"The conditions for talks are there," she said. "We hope they can achieve substantial results."
South Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Lee Soo Hyuck said negotiators believe the session could produce a "working group able to discuss the substantive and technical issues."
"Whether North Korea will accept that is difficult to say, considering how sensitive North Korea's position can be," said Lee, who headed the South Korean delegation in the first round of talks.
Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly is expected to head the U.S. delegation, as he did for the first round of negotiations in Beijing.
For more than a year, North Korea's reclusive and belligerent government has played a game of brinkmanship with the rest of the world, threatening to build nuclear weapons unless it can strike a deal with the United States. Pyongyang wants a written security guarantee from Washington and promises of economic aid.
The Bush administration initially was unwilling to talk with North Korea unless it backed down first, but over the past year it has come to accept that the best hope for keeping North Korea in check would be an agreement that includes the major Asian powers. China in particular has tremendous influence over North Korea because it provides energy to the regime, which is desperately poor after spending nearly all of its money on its military.
Though North Korea has had a nuclear program for years, outsiders have never determined for certain whether it has produced a deployable weapon, or exactly what it has been working on since October 2002, when the United States said the North admitted secretly enriching uranium for nuclear weapons.
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.