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China Attempts to Stave Off Crisis Using Diplomacy with N. Korea - 2003-07-15

China is stepping up diplomacy to resume talks aimed at cooling tensions over North Korea's nuclear weapons program. Those efforts include sending a presidential envoy to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

Chinese envoy, Vice Foreign Minister Dai Bangguo, brought a letter from China's President Hu Jintao to North Korea's leader Kim Jong Il at the start of talks Monday in Pyongyang.

The meeting comes just a week after South Korea's president visited China in the hope of getting Beijing to use its economic and political influence to get its ally North Korea to accept multilateral talks on the nuclear issue.

China hosted inconclusive talks last April that brought North Korea to the table with the United States.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan would not confirm details of the letter, but said Beijing wants the various parties in the nuclear standoff to "stick to the path of peace."

Mr. Kong said resuming talks to resolve the nuclear issue is critical to achieving peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.

Chinese officials would also not confirm a report on Reuters that Beijing is offering a compromise format to restart the talks between Washington and Pyongyang. The deal supposedly would hold multilateral talks that the United States wants concurrently with the bilateral talks demanded by North Korea.

North Korea asserts the right to build nuclear weapons - in violation of signed agreements - because it said it is threatened by the heavily nuclear-armed United States. It insists its security can be assured only by making a deal directly with Washington.

Washington has argued North Korea violated the last deal it signed with the United States, and demands multilateral talks with North Korea. U.S. officials think an agreement involving North Korea's neighbors Japan, South Korea, China, and Russia is less likely to be broken by Pyongyang.

China's current diplomatic push comes amid conflicting reports about how advanced North Korea's nuclear weapons program may be.

The latest report in The New York Times Tuesday quotes U.S. officials as saying North Korea told them last week that they have reprocessed enough fuel rods to make six nuclear bombs and it will do so quickly.

However, South Korea's foreign minister said Monday there is no hard evidence to support North Korea's claim it had finished reprocessing all eight thousand spent nuclear fuel rods in June.

The nuclear fuel rods were part of a weapons program that North Korea halted under a 1994 deal with the United States. That deal unraveled after the United States accused North Korea last October of secretly having another nuclear weapons program, sparking the current stand-off.