N. Korea, U.S. Will Talk This Week

North Korea, North Korea flag, nuclear, atom
The United States, North Korea and China will hold three days of talks starting Wednesday in Beijing on North Korea's nuclear weapons program, the State Department said Monday.

Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the U.S. delegation will be led by Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly.

Boucher said Pyongyang's nuclear weapons programs "are a matter of concern to the entire international community."

He said the United States believes the inclusion of Japan and South Korea in the discussions at a later stage is essential, given the stakes they have in a nuclear-free Korean peninsula.

But shortly before the State Department made its announcement, South Korean officials announced plans Monday to hold high-level talks with North Korea next week.

In a telephone message, South Korean Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun accepted the North Korean offer to hold negotiations April 27-29, his office said.

Wednesday's meeting will be the first face-to-face discussion between U.S. and North Korean officials since Kelly led a delegation to Pyongyang last October.

It was during those discussions that North Korea acknowledged it was developing uranium-based nuclear weapons. Since then, North Korea has withdrawn from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and has taken steps to begin production of plutonium-based nuclear weapons.

North Korea has accused the United States of planning to invade, and said the U.S.-led war against Iraq was proof that it needed a strong military deterrent.

"If enemies invade our inviolable sky, land and seas even an inch, destroy up the aggressors with merciless annihilating blows," read one slogan carried by its newspapers, KCNA, the country's news agency, said in an English-language report. North Korea routinely issues such belligerent rhetoric.

Washington says it does not plan to invade, and has said for months that a diplomatic solution to the nuclear issue was possible. However, it has not ruled out a military option.

Meanwhile, the New York Times is reporting that the Bush administration is divided over what approach to take towards North Korea, much as it was reportedly split over how to handle Iraq.

While no leading official is advocating military action yet, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has circulated a document suggesting the U.S. team with China to depose North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, the Times reports. That approach contrasts with the State Department-supported method of trying to convince Kim to shelve his alleged weapons programs.

Amid concern over North Korea's missile capabilities, a prominent South Korean newspaper reported that U.S. spy satellites detected an explosion at a North Korean ballistic missile test site in November. The newspaper, Chosun Ilbo, cited sources at the South Korean Defense Ministry and the U.S. military.

The explosion took place during a missile engine test at the site in North Hamkyong Province on North Korea's east coast, damaging the site and delaying the North's missile development, the newspaper said Monday.

"We cannot verify that," said Lee Ferguson, a U.S. military spokeswoman in Seoul.

North Korea is believed to finance some of its military activities with drug trafficking, but it was not immediately unclear whether 30 North Koreans detained in Australia were working for Pyongyang.

In Australia, a court refused bail to the North Koreans after the Australian navy stormed a North Korean cargo ship allegedly involved in trafficking $48 million worth of heroin. The crew have not yet been charged.

The cargo ship, Pong Su, was intercepted Sunday by a navy warship after it refused police orders to stop off Australia's south coast. Troops boarded the ship using a helicopter and boarding vessels.

In recent years, there have been frequent reports that opium, heroin and methamphetamines are produced in North Korea, and that North Korean nationals are involved in trafficking drugs, particularly to Japan and Taiwan.