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North Korea Talks Take 'Friendly' Tone


Six-nation talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons programs are continuing in Beijing in an atmosphere diplomats describe as "friendly" and "positive" - a far cry from the acrimony of the previous three rounds.

North Korea ended its 13-month boycott of nuclear disarmament talks Tuesday, when the six nations resumed negotiations in Beijing.

Diplomats here this week say the atmosphere is relaxed, non-confrontational and more positive than the three previous rounds of negotiations held since 2003. They ended in increased acrimony and no progress.

The new friendliness is what may lead to an eventual agreement. U.S. envoy Christopher Hill says common ground with the North Koreans is emerging. "There's certainly some points of agreement but there continue to be points of disagreements," he said.

This time around, the Chinese have hosted lavish banquets for the delegates in the Diaoyutai State Guest House, where the meetings are taking place.

Another difference is that these talks are open-ended to allow as much time as needed to work out differences on how to get North Korea to disarm.

And unlike previous rounds, delegations have had frequent one-on-one meetings outside of the plenary sessions. The United States and North Korea have held multiple bilaterals on the sidelines, in a sign that they are tackling substantive issues.

Head of the Russian delegation, Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Alexeyev, describes the North Koreans as still tough, but showing a willingness to compromise. "I consider it rather pragmatic, up to a point. It is not doctrinal," he said. "They could be tough, but still can be flexible when the necessity is, and they consider they should be flexible."

The United States, South Korea, Japan, Russia and China want North Korea to verifiably dismantle its nuclear programs, which violate a number of international agreements. Pyongyang has refused to do so, unless it gets economic and security guarantees, and diplomatic recognition from the United States.

The biggest obstacle appears to be what officials here call sequencing - what action comes first.

While this block remains, officials say the one-on-one meetings are bearing fruit, in that talk is moving beyond generalities to specifics - touching on inspections and verification, should the North agree to disarm.

With this optimism, diplomats are prepared for the long haul, saying the talks have a long way to go to a final settlement.

As a sign of things to come, foreign reporters have been advised to keep their return ticket bookings open, and to start washing their shirts for a long stay.

A senior U.S. official said his delegation would stay in Beijing "as long as it is useful" to stay. Officials stress, they cannot allow another 13-month-long gap to set in. The stakes, they say, are too high.

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