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US Hopes North Korea is Ready for Serious Talks on Nuclear Issue

The Bush administration said Friday it hopes North Korea is serious about resuming the six-party talks on its nuclear program. A U.S. Congressman who visited Pyongyang this week says he was told North Korea is ready to rejoin the Chinese-sponsored talks, and perhaps soon.

Officials here are taking a cautious approach to word from Republican Congressman Curt Weldon that North Korea's return to the six-party talks may be imminent.

Mr. Weldon, who led a bipartisan congressional delegation to Pyongyang and met senior members of the reclusive government, said North Korea could return to the negotiations in a matter of weeks.

The official North Korean news agency also said the country is ready to rejoin the talks and treat the U.S. side with respect and friendship, provided that the United States does not "slander" its communist system or interfere in its internal affairs.

At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher said U.S. officials hope the comments actually do portend the resumption of the talks, which have been stalled since last June.

He said North Korea has not yet officially informed the Chinese sponsors or other participants about its plans.

Mr. Boucher said the Bush administration is ready to resume talks on the comprehensive plan the United States tabled last year for resolving the Korean nuclear crisis, and to consider any proposals North Korea might have.

However, he said the bargaining has to take place at the talks themselves and not beforehand in the media or elsewhere:

"We've always said the place to be flexible is in the talks themselves,” said Mr. Boucher. “We're not going to stand around and negotiate with ourselves. If the North Koreans raise issues they are looking to resolve, and if we can do that in the context of resolving the issues of concern to us, then obviously that's what the negotiations, that's what the discussions are for."

A senior diplomat who spoke to reporters said U.S. officials are "avidly" examining the latest North Korean statement, but that the question remains whether Pyongyang will actually show up and make a serious effort at the talks.

The United States has said it is ready to be part of multi-lateral guarantees for North Korea's security if Pyongyang completely and irreversibly dismantled its nuclear program.

It has ruled out increasing U.S. aid or diplomatic recognition of North Korea until that happens, but has said other participants in the talks can provide aid as the process unfolds.

There have been three rounds of negotiations thus far involving Russia, Japan and South Korea along with China, North Korea and the United States.

North Korea had agreed in principle to take part in another round last September, but it did not return amid speculation it was awaiting the outcome of the November U.S. Presidential election.

The Korean nuclear crisis erupted in 2002, when U.S. officials said Pyongyang privately admitted to an American envoy that it was running a secret uranium-enrichment program despite its 1994 nuclear freeze accord with Washington.

North Korea, which is believed to have long possessed a small nuclear arsenal, has since denied enriching uranium. But it has admitted reprocessing spent fuel from its once-frozen reactor complex into weapons-grade plutonium.