After conciliatory remarks formally launching the resumption of long-stalled six-party talks, U.S. and North Korean diplomats returned to one-on-one discussions Tuesday on banning nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula.
Speeches by leaders of delegations from the six nations involved in the negotiations displayed increased flexibility and determination to make progress, said a Chinese spokesman, Qin Gang. In their remarks, he noted, North Korea and the United States both sought to emphasize their willingness to meet demands from the other side and seek common ground.
The North Korean delegation leader, Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan, repeated his government's determination to work toward what it calls "denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula." His counterpart, Christopher Hill, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, reiterated assurances that the Bush administration accepts North Korea's sovereignty and has no intention of attacking.
"We have noticed that the atmosphere is improved since the last talks," Qin told reporters.
China, which has hosted and sponsored the six-party talks since they began in August 2003, has often urged the United States to soften its language and attitude toward North Korea to smooth the way for concessions. Similarly, Chinese diplomats said, China has repeatedly pressured North Korea, since it dropped out of the talks 13 months ago, to return to the negotiating table with a willingness to seek agreement on dismantling its nuclear weapons program.
Hill, who met with Kim on Monday and Tuesday, has been willing to conduct bilateral meetings with North Korean officials, which are seen as a step in the direction urged by China. In contrast, during the previous three rounds of six-party talks, U.S. officials had sought to emphasize multilateral meetings, while North Korea demanded one-on-one contacts to emphasize its sovereignty and equality with the United States.
Hill said in an interview, however, that Kim on Tuesday revealed a sign of possible troubles to come in a response to Hill's question the previous day about North Korea's definition of "denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula."
Hill said Kim told him that "denuclearization, to the DPRK," the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, "means eliminating nuclear weapons from North Korea, and from South Korea as well."
"The U.S. removed all nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula in the early 1990s," Hill added.
There was concern at the talks that North Korea's position could sour the atmosphere of cooperation thus far. The six participants in the talks are the United States, North and South Korea, China, Japan and Russia.
"We want to keep this fixed on the problem at hand, the problem of North Korea's development of nuclear weapons," said a senior U.S. diplomat, alluding to North Korea's reference to include South Korea in the formula. "To go into South Korea can be problematic, if they want to go into areas relating to the U.S.'s defensive nuclear umbrella."
A senior U.S. diplomat said Kim was expected to provide North Korea's response to a U.S. proposal put forward at the last round of talks, in June 2004, which outlined a sequence of moves the United States would take if North Korea agreed to eliminate its nuclear weapons program. South Korea and other U.S. allies would provide energy aid to the North in return. Within three months of verification, the United States would join its allies in giving security assurances and perhaps also providing economic aid if the dismantling proceeded on schedule.
A North Korean source quoted by the Russian news agency Interfax cited this suggestion as unacceptable, saying North Korea's formal declaration in February that it had produced nuclear weapons requires simultaneous withdrawal of nuclear weapons in the North and the South.
"The situation has changed since the third round of the negotiations," the source said, according to Interfax.
Another possible obstacle came from Japan, whose envoys have insisted on discussing North Korea's abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s. South Korean and Chinese officials clearly rejected this proposal, saying the issue should be dealt with by Japan and North Korea outside the six-party talks.
Correspondent Peter Finn in Moscow and staff writer Elizabeth Williamson in Washington contributed to this report.