The Bush administration is welcoming North Korea's reported agreement in principle to return to six-party talks on ending its nuclear weapons program. U.S. officials are awaiting a report on the development from China, whose parliamentary leader and second-ranking politician Wu Bangguo brokered the accord on a visit to Pyongyang.
The first round of six-way talks on the nuclear issue last August in Beijing ended inconclusively. But U.S. officials are at least mildly optimistic about prospects for further talks, based on Thursday's announcement from Beijing and North Korea's October 25 statement that it would consider President Bush's proposal for a multi-lateral security pledge to Pyongyang, as part of a deal to end its nuclear program.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, echoing earlier comments by a White House spokesman traveling with the president in Ohio, said the United States would obviously welcome an early resumption of the talks, though he said the administration is awaiting an official report from China on parliamentary leader Wu's mission to Pyongyang.
"The discussions that the Chinese leader Wu Bangguo had in North Korea do look like a step in the right direction, because we now have the North Koreans saying that they're interested in resuming talks," he said. "We will look forward to hearing from the Chinese about the visit. We look forward to having the opportunity to discuss with them and the other participants in the talks whatever developments there were during this visit."
The announcement carried by the official Chinese and North Korean media followed a meeting between Mr. Wu and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il. It gave no date for new talks, which would involve China, North and South Korea, the United States, Japan and Russia, but said both sides agreed in principle "to pursue the course" of the six-way dialogue.
Spokesman Boucher responded with caution to a statement by the North Korean media that Pyongyang is willing to hold more talks, if the negotiations lead to what was termed a "package settlement, based on the principle of simultaneous actions."
Mr. Boucher said simultaneity was not a word the United States has used in describing how an agreement would unfold, suggesting that Washington would want to see at least some disarmament action by Pyongyang before joining other parties in underwriting North Korea's security. He said there has been no change in the U.S. view that any settlement should come in a series of steps.
"We've talked about a series of steps that would have to be taken in order to achieve a verifiable and irreversible end to North Korea's nuclear weapons program," he said. "In that context, the president has said that, as part of that series of steps, we might be willing to put some security guarantees in writing. That essentially remains our position."
North Korea had for months insisted that it would halt its nuclear program only if the United States agreed to a formal non-aggression pact. The Bush administration rejected that demand. But during last month's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Bangkok, President Bush raised the idea of a written promise, short of a treaty, that would reassure Pyongyang, if it gives up its nuclear weapons ambitions.