North Korea has agreed to return this month to six-nation talks aimed at eliminating its nuclear arsenal, ending a year-long boycott, U.S. officials and the North Korean government said Saturday.
The agreement to restart the talks was reached at a rare dinner meeting here between a senior U.S. envoy and his North Korean counterpart, held shortly before Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived Saturday night for talks with Chinese officials on the North Korean issue.
During the meal, Kim Gye Gwan, the North Korean deputy foreign minister, told Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill that North Korea was willing to attend talks in Beijing the week of July 25, according to a senior U.S. official traveling with Rice. In what U.S. officials took as an encouraging sign, they reported that Kim said the purpose of the talks was the "denuclearization of the Korean peninsula" and that North Korea intended to make progress at the negotiations.
Rice met with Chinese President Hu Jintao, Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing and other Chinese officials Sunday morning. She then was to fly to Phuket, Thailand, for a scheduled tour Monday of damage from last winter's Indian Ocean tsunami. She then planned to return to East Asia for talks with Japanese and South Korean officials, also focusing largely on the North Korean issue.
Rice, after meeting with Li, said China and the United States agreed that resumption of the talks "is only a first step. The real issue now is to make progress at these talks."
Li added the two countries had a "shared goal -- a Korean peninsula that is free of nuclear weapons."
China has already announced that State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan -- a former foreign minister who also plans to meet one-on-one with Rice -- will visit Pyongyang this week as Hu's personal envoy, apparently to report on the discussions with Rice.
The diplomatic breakthrough comes five months after North Korea declared it had nuclear weapons and would never return to talks because of what it called the Bush administration's "hostile policy." The statement was made shortly after Rice, in her confirmation hearings, said that North Korea was one of six "outposts of tyranny" -- and President Bush, a few days later in his State of the Union address, pledged to combat tyranny around the world.
The United States' partners in the talks, particularly China, have complained that the Bush administration's rhetoric concerning North Korea and its leader, Kim Jong Il, was making it difficult to draw the reclusive nation back to the sessions. In recent months, U.S. officials have sent signals that they respected North Korea's sovereignty, though Rice has declined to retract her "outpost of tyranny" comment. Bush, who received the ire of North Korea after referring to Kim as a "dictator," began saying "Mr. Kim" when referring to him.
North Korea's official KCNA news agency, in a statement Saturday night confirming the talks, appeared to claim a victory in the change of tone when it described the dinner between Hill and Kim.
"The U.S. side clarified its official stand to recognize the DPRK as a sovereign state, not to invade it and hold bilateral talks within the framework of the six-party talks," the statement said, using the initials for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. "The DPRK side interpreted the U.S. side's expression of its stand as a retraction of its remark designating the former as an outpost of tyranny and decided to return to the six-party talks."
Hill said that his dinner conversation with his counterpart lasted more than two hours, and was conducted in a correct and careful atmosphere. The men focused on "a process that is going to lead us to a solution," Hill said. "We agreed that we can't have dueling speeches. We need to have results" that meet specific objectives, he said.
The envoys agreed that "we have to look at ways to make each round count," Hill said, "and we need to make sure that each round builds more momentum for the next, so when we push that rock up the hill it doesn't come back to the bottom each time."
U.S. officials stressed that the meeting between Hill and Kim did not amount to negotiations, but an exchange of diplomatic messages. They said Hill's statement was similar to comments made at two recent meetings between mid-level officials at North Korea's U.N. mission, which helped set the groundwork for North Korea's agreement. Still, it was the highest level contact between the two countries in more than a year.
The Bush administration has insisted it will not hold bilateral negotiations with North Korea, except as part of the six-nation negotiating rounds that also include China, Russia, Japan and South Korea.
Only three sessions have been held in the past two years, the last in June 2004, with little progress. In the meantime, U.S. intelligence analysts have said they believe North Korea's stockpile of weapons-grade plutonium has increased fourfold during the same period, enough to make about nine nuclear weapons.
The United States also pressed China and South Korea to send tough signals to North Korea about the implications of its continued refusal to return to the negotiating table. Those countries instead appear to have swayed North Korea by suggesting that a successful negotiation would result in significant assistance. China rebuffed a U.S. suggestion in April that it temporarily cut off North Korea's supply of oil and lured North Korean officials to the three previous sessions with huge payments and concessions.
Rice, speaking to reporters traveling with her to Beijing, said the United States had no plans to update its proposal, advanced at the talks a year ago, but was prepared to negotiate if North Korea came forward with a serious counteroffer.
Under the U.S. proposal, if North Korea agreed to end its plutonium and uranium programs, South Korea and other U.S. allies could provide immediate energy assistance to the North. Pyongyang would have three months to disclose its programs and have its claims verified by U.S. intelligence. Only then would the United States and its allies give provisional security assurances and enter a process that might result in direct U.S. aid and a permanent security guarantee.
"There is something there for the North Koreans to react to if they choose to," Rice said. "It is not as if we are starting from a blank slate and everybody has to make it up."
At past sessions, North Korea has made a series of proposals, none of which have been acceptable to the United States. North Korea denies it has a uranium-enrichment program and has proposed only a long-term freeze of its plutonium program. It has also called for a long list of concessions, including billions of dollars in aid.
Staff Writer Elizabeth Williamson in Washington contributed to this report.