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US, N. Korea and China Attempt to Defuse Nuclear Crisis - 2003-04-23

Senior diplomats from the United States, North Korea, and China are beginning talks in Beijing aimed at defusing the crisis over North Korea's nuclear ambitions. These closed-door meetings are the highest level discussions between Pyongyang and Washington since the nuclear crisis began last October.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly said nothing of substance as he brushed past reporters waiting outside his Beijing hotel early Wednesday. He heads the U.S. delegation that hopes to put a "verifiable and irreversible" end to North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

The crisis over North Korea's nuclear status began last year when Mr. Kelly confronted North Korean officials with evidence they were violating previous agreements not to produce nuclear weapons.

Washington says there will be no improvement in relations with North Korea and no possibility of aid unless Pyongyang returns to compliance with its international commitments to be nuclear free.

North Korean officials say they have the right to nuclear weapons because they are threatened by the nuclear-armed United States. They are demanding a guarantee that the United States will not attack North Korea. Top Washington officials have said many times that they have no intention of attacking the isolated communist nation, but they will not rule out any option.

The three-way talks between the United States, North Korea and China were brokered by Beijing, which is Pyongyang's most important ally. The arrangements are a compromise between Pyongyang's demand to talk only to the United States and Washington's insistence that discussions include North Korea's neighbors: Japan, South Korea and Russia.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao says it is fine with Beijing if these talks eventually expand to include other nations. He says China hopes that all concerned nations can play a constructive role, but the top priority is for the relevant parties to start talking about each other's concerns in a face-to-face manner. He says this will be conducive to a peaceful settlement of the issue.

Washington says the three days of talks in Beijing are a step toward wider discussions and just the first step in what is likely to be a long process of dialogue.

U.S. officials have said they think North Korea may have one or two nuclear weapons, but tensions rose sharply since October when it appeared that Pyongyang might become able to greatly expand that arsenal. The fear was that North Korea could use the weapons itself, or sell them to terrorist groups.

Tensions grew as a U.S.-led consortium cut off promised oil shipments to North Korea for violating nuclear accords. Pyongyang retaliated by expelling U.N. nuclear monitors, leaving the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and reopening its Yongbyon reactor complex.

The current round of talks here in China are slated to go on until Friday.