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Talks on N. Korea Nuclear Weapons Program Open Smoothly - 2003-08-27

Diplomats say the first day of sensitive talks on North Korea's nuclear program has gone smoothly, but there is no hint yet of any possible agreement. The talks opened Wednesday with a welcome from Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who is heading China's delegation to the three-day talks.

Mr. Wang says these six-nation talks mark a new beginning, and another step forward toward a peaceful resolution of the North Korea nuclear issue. He says North Korea has made an important decision by coming to the talks, and the United States has, too.

The negotiators will discuss demands by the United States and other countries for North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.

The crisis erupted in October, when the United State said North Korea had a nuclear weapons program, in violation of previous international agreements. Since then, North Korean officials have admitted that Pyongyang has been developing nuclear weapons.

As the talks began, an official newspaper in North Korea repeated the government's demands that the United States sign a binding non-aggression pact before it would consider giving up what the paper called its nuclear deterrent force. Washington has ruled out signing such a pact but has offered a written assurance that it has no plans to attack North Korea.

Few details emerged Wednesday on the negotiations in Beijing, but diplomats said the first session has been carried out in a warm and relaxed atmosphere. Representatives smiled and shook hands, before the chief U.S. negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly took his seat next to North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Yong Il.

China, Japan, South Korea, Russia, and the United States all want North Korea to get rid of its nuclear program. However, analysts say the talks may be complicated by the countries' separate agendas.

South Korea seeks to avoid war with the North and provide humanitarian aid to its impoverished neighbor.

Japan is pressing for not only nuclear disarmament, but for Pyongyang to answer for its abductions decades ago of several Japanese citizens. Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi spoke in Tokyo Wednesday.

"North Korean development of nuclear weapons and associated matters of missile development and proliferation present an enormous threat to the security of Japan and, in turn, northeast Asia and international society as a whole," says Mr. Kawaguchi. "In addition, the intense anger over the abduction of the Japanese nationals has by no means subsided."

China and Russia - longtime allies of Pyongyang - are seen as a counterweight to the pressure building on the North from other countries. China also fears a flood of refugees into its territory if sanctions further damage the weak North Korean economy.