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US Ready for Extended Talks on North Korean Nuclear Program

The United States signaled Monday it is ready for extended negotiations in Beijing aimed at an accord ending North Korea's nuclear program. The chief U.S. delegate to the talks, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs Christopher Hill, met his North Korean counterpart on the eve of Tuesday's opening of a new round of the six-party talks.

The first three rounds of the six-party talks lasted only a few days each, with little give-and-take among the parties.

But officials here say the new round could be different, with the United States expecting a formal North Korean response to the proposal it made a year ago, and setting no deadline for ending the discussions.

A senior State Department official who spoke to reporters on terms of anonymity said the U.S. team is prepared to remain in Beijing "for some period of time," and open to a format that could include breaks to allow delegations to report home and seek instructions from their governments.

In the previous round of six-party talks in Beijing in June of last year, the United States said it was prepared to be part of multi-lateral guarantees for North Korea's security under an accord bringing a permanent and verifiable end to its nuclear weapons program.

U.S. officials said other parties to the talks could provide North Korea with aid as the disarmament process unfolded, and they have left open the prospect of increased U.S. diplomatic recognition and aid for Pyongyang once it was completed.

At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack declined to address a report by Japan's Kyodo news agency that the United States could be ready to set up a diplomatic liaison office in Pyongyang if North Korea abandoned its nuclear program.

But he did say North Korea would enjoy a better relationship with all the parties to the talks, if it was ready to bargain in good faith and make the strategic choice to abandon its pursuit of nuclear arms.

"As the Secretary (Rice) has said, North Korea needs to make a strategic decision to give up its nuclear program," Mr. McCormack says. "And if it does make that strategic decision and move forward, it can realize a different kind of relationship with the other members of the six-party talks. And the core idea behind the June, 2004 (U.S.) proposal is that good faith acts on the part of North Korea would be met in turn by good-faith actions by the other members of the six-party talks."

Spokesman McCormack said Assistant Secretary Hill's 75-minute meeting Monday with North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan was businesslike, and an opportunity to "compare notes," but not a negotiation.

U.S. delegates had met separately with North Koreans during previous rounds, but Monday's meeting was the first that preceded the start of a session of talks.

The senior official who spoke here said U.S. officials have been advised by China to expect a formal reply to the American proposal from North Korea, which has limited its reaction thus far to critical comments in its official media.

He also said North Korea, like other participants in the talks, is free to raise issues or concerns not covered by the U.S. proposal.

Pyongyang agreed to return to the talks July 9th during Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit to Beijing, and after South Korea proposed to meet all North Korea's electricity needs in exchange for nuclear disarmament.

In addition to the United States, China and North Korea, the six-party talks also include South Korea, Japan and Russia.