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Working-Level N. Korea Nuclear Talks Open in Beijing - 2004-05-12

Diplomats of six nations have opened working-level talks in Beijing on North Korea's nuclear programs. North Korea is also offering to hold high-level military talks with South Korea this month.

North Korea says it is ready to have its generals meet with their South Korean counterparts on May 26. The meeting would mark the first time Pyongyang has allowed discussions with the South at that level.

Communist North Korea and democratic South Korea have been technically at war for more than a-half century. For years, South Korea has pushed for military dialogue with the North. Seoul has sought to prevent deadly naval clashes that have sometimes erupted along a disputed sea border.

Last week, officials from both nations agreed to hold military talks, but did not set a date.

Meanwhile, teams from China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, and the United States gathered in Beijing to discuss Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions. The aim of low-level discussions is to set an agenda for the next round of high-level negotiations. Earlier talks were inconclusive.

All sides are working to resolve a dispute that centers on demands by the United States and others for North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons programs. North Korea wants security and economic guarantees in exchange.

Yong Sup-han, a professor of defense policy at the Korea National Defense University in Seoul, says the North Korean delegation will likely use this week's meeting to gauge whether there is room for compromise.

"North Korea still hesitates to fully come to an agreement to resolve the issue fundamentally," he said. "They are exploring the U.S. position and other countries' positions. This could be an [exercise of] exploring other positions and testing the will to compromise."

In a statement carried by the North Korean government news agency, Pyongyang said talks this week should center on North Korea's demands for a reward if it freezes its military nuclear projects.

The Communist nation has been struggling to recover from an economic collapse caused by mismanagement and natural disasters.

The United States this week reaffirmed its position that it will not reward North Korea for merely fulfilling its obligations under terms of nonproliferation agreements that it has signed in the past. Washington is demanding nothing less than the complete, irreversible, and verifiable dismantling of North Korea's nuclear-weapons programs.

Despite concerns that the six-nation talks are making little progress on the nuclear weapons issue, military talks between the two Koreas are a step forward for two countries technically at war.