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Negotiators Optimistic as N. Korean Nuclear Talks Begin

Diplomats from Pyongyang and Washington held private discussions on the first day of talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear weapons programs. Negotiators from six countries started the day by sounding an optimistic note and then outlining their positions. Diplomats from the United States and North Korea went into a bilateral session late Wednesday afternoon. The dispute over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons programs centers on Washington's position that North Korea must give up all its nuclear ambitions before it can get the security guarantees and aid it craves.

Diplomats from the United States, China, Russia, Japan and the two Koreas laid out their positions on the stalemate over North Korea's nuclear weapons program during the first day of talks.

At the start of the talks, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly outlined Washington's position. "The United States seeks complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of all North Korea's nuclear programs, both plutonium and uranium," he said.

During the opening session, North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan said he was at the talks "to seek common ground." Just hours before the meeting began, Pyongyang restated its demand for economic compensation in exchange for a nuclear freeze.

The U.S. Embassy in Beijing said Washington will not reward Pyongyang "for complying with its international obligations." North Korea has signed several international accords to remain nuclear-free, but it maintains it needs a nuclear arsenal as protection against attack, particularly from the United States. The United States has repeatedly said it does not plan to attack North Korea. Mr. Kelly repeated that assertion Wednesday.

Leonard Spector, deputy director of the Monterey Institute Center for Non-Proliferation Studies, says that other countries, notably China, will attempt to broker a compromise between Washington and Pyongyang.

"It's my impression that China is more eager for a workable solution in which both sides compromise," says Mr. Spector. "This is appropriate in negotiations where you have multiple parties, often you have one party that tries to draw all the sides together and to modify the hard-line positions that the sides may be taking."

The first round of six-party talks in August concluded after three days with little progress. This round of discussions is open-ended, in hope of encouraging discussion among all parties.

Immediately after the morning session, the Japanese and North Korean negotiators met to discuss Pyongyang's abduction of Japanese citizens decades ago. North Korean state media have warned that any attempt by Japanese diplomats to discuss the issue would "bring everything to a collapse," while Japanese officials say they can not normalize relations with Pyongyang until the issue is resolved.

Also Wednesday, the United Nations World Food Program reported that the distribution of food supplies has partially resumed in North Korea, after Pyongyang agreed to lend the WFP 25,000 tons of grain from its own stocks. Increased donations from donor countries, including Canada, Germany and Norway, will help food aid resume on a wider level in April.

The impoverished Stalinist state has been on the verge of famine for several years because of crop failures, natural disasters and the collapse of its planned economy.