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Disagreements Hamper N. Korea Nuclear Talks - 2003-12-16

China says talks on North Korea's nuclear program are not likely to resume as early as hoped, but officials in Beijing say progress is being made in setting up the next round of negotiations.

Beijing, without spelling out the details, says preparations for the next round of talks among China, North and South Korea, the United States, Japan and Russia have been held up by differences.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao told reporters in Beijing that there has been significant progress - although he gave no details.

Mr. Liu said the positions of the various parties are becoming closer. But he said there are still differences, and it is premature to set a date for new talks.

China hosted a first round of six-way talks in August. The negotiations ended with no agreement other than to meet again at an unspecified date.

Both the United States and China had hoped to resume the talks by the end of the year, but U.S. officials on Monday said China had told them that would not be possible. They said that instead, China is looking at scheduling the next round of talks for early in the new year.

The talks are aimed at ending a crisis that began more than a year ago, when U.S. officials said North Korea had admitted to restarting its nuclear-weapons program in violation of international agreements.

The United States and its allies want North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons program in a verifiable manner. North Korea says it would be willing do so, but not until the United States offers it a written guarantee that it will not attack the country.

Reports last week said the United States, Japan, and South Korea had sent Pyongyang a proposal on ending the crisis, but a government newspaper in North Korea said Pyongyang had rejected the offer.

U.S. officials said Monday that North Korean preconditions are stalling the talks. But President Bush said he was pleased with the progress that is being made toward bringing all sides back to the negotiating table.