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US Optimistic About Next Round of N. Korean Nuclear Talks

The Bush administration said Wednesday it is optimistic that another round of six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program can be held soon and denied the process is deadlocked. Senior U.S., Japanese and South Korean officials hold talks on the issue in Washington Thursday.

The next round of Chinese sponsored talks had been widely expected to begin sometime this month. But there has been no formal announcement of a date and the Reuters news agency reported Tuesday that the process had hit a snag and the talks might not resume until January or February.

However, at a news conference in Morocco, Secretary of State Colin Powell said there was no deadlock and that he is "still optimistic" that the talks will take place "in the near future."

Those comments were echoed here by State Department spokesman Adam Ereli, who said China is "working diligently" to organize a second round and the United States, for its part, is ready to begin now.

"We support an early resumption of the talks," he said. "We are ready to convene a second round as soon as possible. But I don't want to predict when that's going to be."

China hosted an initial, inconclusive round of talks on the nuclear issue in August that included, along with the United States and North Korea, diplomats from Russia, Japan and South Korea.

The Bush administration has proposed giving North Korea multi-lateral security guarantees if it dismantled the secret nuclear weapons program acknowledged by officials Pyongyang last year.

Tuesday's Reuters account quoted U.S. officials as saying the main obstacle to further talks is North Korea's reluctance to accept, as part of a statement for the next round, an "effective and irreversible" system of verification to confirm it had ended weapons efforts.

State Department arms control chief John Bolton said in a Washington speech Tuesday that written assurances for North Korea's security can only happen "in the context" of such a verification regime.

Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, the chief U.S. delegate to the nuclear talks, is to meet here Thursday with his negotiating counterparts from Tokyo and Seoul - South Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Lee Soo-Hyuck and Japanese Foreign Ministry Director-General Mitoji Yabunaka.

A senior Chinese envoy, Fu Ying, conferred earlier this week with Mr. Kelly and other senior administration officials. The preparations for new talks in Beijing are expected to be a major agenda issue for Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao's planned White House meeting next Tuesday with President Bush.