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Regional Meeting Focuses on Restarting N. Korea Nuclear Talks - 2003-12-29

Officials from China, Japan and South Korea have met in Seoul to discuss how to restart six-nation talks with North Korea on ending Pyongyang's nuclear weapons drive. China has confirmed that North Korea wants the talks to be held in early 2004.

Diplomats representing China, Japan and South Korea met Monday in the South Korean capital to prepare for a second round of multi-party talks on ending the North Korean nuclear crisis.

Fu Ying, head of the Chinese Foreign Ministry's Asian affairs department, told reporters that North Korea wants the talks to take place as soon as possible next year. She spoke after a meeting with diplomats from South Korea and Mitoji Yabunaka of Japan.

Her words echoed comments from a North Korean spokesman, who said on Saturday that Pyongyang wanted to prepare for talks early next year.

In an inconclusive gathering last August, China, South Korea, the United States, Japan and Russia met with North Korea to urge it to abandon efforts to build nuclear weapons. A second round of talks had been expected in Beijing this month, but disagreements over how to settle the issue sank that plan.

Beijing has played a critical role in explaining North Korea's concerns to the United States and the other participants in the talks. China is one of North Korea's few allies.

The nuclear crisis erupted in October 2002 when Washington said Pyongyang admitted running a nuclear weapons program in violation of international conventions.

Washington suspended fuel aid shipments to North Korea, and Pyongyang reacted by expelling United Nations nuclear inspectors. Pyongyang has also withdrawn from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It has claimed to have reprocessed nuclear fuel rods to make material needed for nuclear weapons.

North Korea has insisted on a non-aggression treaty with the United States and aid before it will halt its nuclear activities. But Washington wants the North's weapons program irreversibly and verifiably stopped first. The Bush administration has offered Pyongyang a written security guarantee, stopping short of a full-fledged treaty.