U.S., N. Korea Sit-Down Set For Beijing

North Korea flag, atom, and nuclear energy
The United States will talk with North Korea as early as next week in a meeting hosted by China, thawing chilly relations between Washington and Pyongyang over the communist nation's nuclear weapons program.

It will be the first time in six months that U.S. representatives have met face to face with North Korean officials.

Pyongyang had insisted earlier that any talks about its nuclear program must be with the United States alone, but agreed in recent days to allow China at the table. The Bush administration had repeatedly called for multilateral talks involving several nations in the region.

"We don't anticipate an immediate breakthrough, but we're looking for progress," Sean McCormack, a national security spokesman at the White House, said Wednesday.

While it won't be a full table in Beijing — Japan, South Korea and Russia are excluded from the talks — North Korea has agreed to let China host the talks and participate fully in them, he said.

"I think that at our urging, China, at a very senior level, pressed the North Koreans to agree to multilateral talks, as did South Korea and Japan," McCormack said.

The United States consulted closely with top officials in South Korea and Japan before agreeing to participate, he said.

"We all agreed that we would continue to press for the Japanese and South Korea's early inclusion in talks as one of our top priorities — and possibly Russia in the future," McCormack said.

The U.S. delegation to the talks will be led by Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, who held a meeting with officials in Pyongyang last October. It was then that the United States accused North Korea of having a secret program to make nuclear weapons, and tensions subsequently escalated on the Korean Peninsula.

There is a sense of urgency about the situation because North Korea, already believed to have one or two nuclear weapons, could have several more by summer if it begins reprocessing existing stocks of plutonium.

By restarting a nuclear reactor earlier this year, the North is in position to accumulate additional plutonium supplies which could lead to nuclear weapons in about a year.

In Seoul, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun on Wednesday welcomed news of the talks.

"North Korea will take the road of reform and openness, if economic aid and its political system are guaranteed," he said in a statement. "I don't think it will take risks, especially if the safety of its system is guaranteed."

South Korea's foreign minister, Yoon Young-kwan, said both the United States and China promised that Seoul will eventually join the talks. He said Japan and Russia will be involved as well, but did not say what role either would play.

"We decided to support the talks because it is of paramount importance that talks begin to lay the foundation for a peaceful solution to this problem," Yoon said at a news conference.

Shortly after taking office in 2001, President Bush suspended discussions begun by former President Clinton and ordered a full review of U.S.-North Korean relations.

In his first State of the Union address, in January 2002, Bush proclaimed North Korea a member of an "axis of evil" with Iran and Iraq, saying it was seeking weapons of mass destruction.

Since then, North Korea has pulled out of the International Atomic Energy Agency and has threatened to restart reactors stilled by a 1994 U.S.-North Korean agreement. Bush has said he wants to deal with North Korea diplomatically but has not ruled out military action.

Roh is scheduled to meet with Bush at the White House on May 14.