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North Korea to Push for Third Round of Talks on Nuclear Weapons Program - 2004-03-26

China's foreign minister says he has received assurances from North Korea that it will push ahead for a third round of six-party talks on its nuclear weapons programs.

Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing returned to Beijing late Thursday after a three-day visit to Pyongyang. While there, he met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il for about one and a-half hours in what the Chinese diplomat described as a "happy" atmosphere.

The Chinese official says he and Mr. Kim made headway on the issue of ending the North Korean nuclear dispute.

"The two sides agreed to work together to push forward the process of the six-party talks and use dialogue to peacefully settle the issue," he said.

Mr. Li is the highest-ranking Chinese official to visit Pyongyang in several years.

China's negotiations are aimed at continuing progress made during a second round of talks held last month about North Korea's nuclear ambitions. The talks brought together delegates from China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea and the United States. The talks ended with all sides agreeing to continue negotiating by setting up lower-level working groups that will seek to resolve smaller issues.

The United States and North Korea's neighbors want the Kim government to dismantle its nuclear weapons programs in a complete and verifiable manner. The North Korean leadership insists on security and economic guarantees before it begins dismantling.

North Korea has often issued threats as a means of influencing negotiations. Last week, Pyongyang threatened to increase its arsenal, and blamed the United States for what it said was a lack of progress in the talks.

The official North Korean news agency on Friday said the country's parliament had convened its annual session and approved a new budget, of which 15.5 percent will go to defense spending.

The hefty spending on defense was announced even as international aid workers report that millions of North Koreans go hungry after an economic collapse that began in the mid 1990s. Analysts blame the collapse on natural disasters and mismanagement by the country's Communist rulers.

A report issued at the North Korean parliament session this week indicated North Korea is still struggling with severe energy shortages. South Korean experts say Pyongyang is having problems getting parts and materials to keep its power plants going.

Analysts say one big reason for shortages is that international isolation is more pronounced as a result of the nuclear dispute.