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US, N. Korea Representatives Hold Unexpected Direct Talks - 2003-08-27

Diplomats at the negotiations on North Korea's nuclear weapons say U.S. and North Korean officials have held an unexpected round of direct talks on the sidelines of the gathering. Japanese and South Korean diplomats say North Korean and U.S. officials met for about 30 minutes on the sideline of multiparty talks. Officials did not say what was discussed, but one South Korean diplomat said it appeared that North Korea seemed willing to resolve the nuclear issue through dialogue.

News of the sideline meeting came as a surprise to many. North Korea had asked for bilateral meetings. Washington has insisted on multi-lateral negotiations that would involve North Korea's neighbors.

The three-day talks in Beijing bring together representatives of China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, and the United States.

The gathering is the first of its kind in the 10-month old crisis over North Korea's nuclear weapons development program, which violates several international accords.

Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Wang Yi opened the negotiations Wednesday at Beijing's Diaoyutai state guesthouse.

Mr. Wang, China's top delegate, said the talks are an important step toward resolving the nuclear issue.

Few details emerged from the closed-door meeting.

But South Korean delegation spokesman Shim Bong-il said the first day had gone smoothly.

The South Korean official said the talks were calm and he said the atmosphere was quiet and without difficulty.

North Korea is facing demands that it dismantle its nuclear weapons program. But Pyongyang says it wants security guarantees from the United States.

North Korean officials have accused the United States of preparing to attack their country and cite that as the reason for their development of a nuclear weapons program.

Washington has ruled out signing a formal non-aggression pact, but has offered a written assurance that it has no plans to invade North Korea.

Even as talks were beginning, North Korea was warning it might not be ready to dismantle its nuclear program. An official newspaper in Pyongyang said the North would not give up what it referred to as Pyongyang's "nuclear deterrent force" unless Washington agrees to a non-aggression pact.

Observers say the meeting in Beijing is only a first step in what promises to be a long and difficult process of resolving the North Korean nuclear standoff. Some analysts say that if the delegates agree to meet again, that would be considered a success.