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US Envoy Says Nuclear Talks with Pyongyang at Crucial Stage

The U.S. negotiator at the six-party talks aimed at persuading North Korea to give up nuclear weapons says the reclusive communist country has the choice of engaging in diplomacy or suffering the consequences of sanctions. From Beijing, where the formal talks get under way on Monday after a 13-month hiatus, Roger Wilkison reports Christopher Hill says the negotiations have reached a crucial stage.

Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill told reporters in the Chinese capital that he and his fellow negotiators from North and South Korea, Japan, Russia and China have difficult days ahead.

Hill arrived in Beijing Sunday for the talks.

The talks on North Korea's nuclear program have gone on intermittently since 2003. Pyongyang has boycotted them since November of last year, in anger at U.S. financial sanctions imposed on the Stalinist state for allegedly counterfeiting U.S. currency and money laundering.

Shortly after it detonated a nuclear device in October, North Korea agreed to return to the talks. It says, however, that it must now be considered a nuclear power and will not give up its weapons until the United States changes what Pyongyang calls Washington's hostile attitude toward it.

Hill says it is time for North Korea to begin implementing its September 2005 agreement to scrap its nuclear weapons in exchange for aid and security guarantees from the United States and other countries.

Sounding impatient with Pyongyang's bargaining tactics, Hill says negotiations have now reached what he called a fork in the road.

"We can either go forward on a diplomatic track, or we have to go to a much more difficult track, and that is a track that involves sanctions and, I think, ultimately will really be very harmful to the D.P.R.K. economy," Hill says.

The D.P.R.K., or Democratic People's Republic of Korea, is North Korea's formal name.

The United Nations imposed trade sanctions on North Korea after its nuclear test, but it is unclear how much effect they have had on the impoverished country. China and South Korea have been reluctant to penalize their neighbor.

North Korea has demanded that the United States lift its financial sanctions as a condition of the negotiations. Hill says his delegation is prepared to discuss that issue in a separate working group but that the real issue at stake is getting North Korea to take concrete steps toward denuclearization.