The United States, North Korea and China could hold talks as early as next week, in an attempt to defuse the standoff over Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions. Word of the talks comes a few days after North Korea signaled it was willing to abandon its demands for talks with just the United States.
U.S. and Asian news reports say President Bush has given approval for talks to begin with North Korea. The reports, which all quote unnamed U.S. officials, say the talks will be held next week in Beijing.
Washington and Pyongyang have not held formal talks since North Korea expelled international inspectors and took steps to reactivate facilities that could produce fuel for nuclear weapons. Those moves came after Washington said last October that Pyongyang had an illegal nuclear weapons program.
The reports say China has agreed to be the host for the talks and will participate in them.
An apparent breakthrough leading to talks came a few days ago, when Pyongyang indicated it was willing to accept Washington's demand that other countries take part in any talks. The North Koreans had previously insisted on one-to-one talks with the United States.
On Wednesday, North Korea reiterated that it is ready to accept any form of dialogue. The government newspaper, Minju Joson, urged Washington to take an honest approach to dialogue. In the past few days, Pyongyang has stopped the nearly daily flow of anti-U.S. rhetoric that it has issued for months.
South Korea advocates talks that include it, Japan, China and Russia. South Korea's ambassador to the United States, Han Sung-Joo, said Wednesday that the format for the talks has not been decided. He said ultimately any negotiations will include all of North Korea's neighbors.
Japan's top government spokesman - while not directly confirming that talks will be held - says any meeting will be welcomed. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda says Japan and other countries have been working hard to bring about talks with North Korea. He adds that Pyongyang is softening its stance and the Japanese government expects diplomatic talks to occur as soon as possible.
Japanese media quote Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi as saying he hopes North Korea will agree to have Japan participate in future discussions.
Japan's Mainichi newspaper Wednesday afternoon quoted a top Japanese official, anonymously, as saying Japanese and South Korean diplomats would probably join next week's talks in Beijing.
Regional analysts say the quick defeat of the government of Saddam Hussein in Iraq by U.S.-led forces may have prompted North Korea to soften its position. President George Bush had labeled Iraq, North Korea and Iran an "axis of evil" for possessing weapons of mass destruction and fostering terrorism.