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Powell Welcomes Offer Of North Korean Nuclear Freeze - 2004-01-06

Secretary of State Colin Powell said Tuesday he is encouraged by a North Korean offer to suspend its nuclear program, and said he hopes it leads to the early convening of another round of six-party talks on the issue hosted by China.

Though North Korea billed its latest offer as a "bold concession" to the United States to get the nuclear talks moving, officials here said it did not go much beyond previous pronouncements on the issue by Pyongyang.

However in a talk with reporters after a meeting with Tunisian Foreign Minister Habib Ben Yahia, Secretary of State Powell welcomed the tone of the statement carried by the North Korean news agency and said he's hopeful that the next round of Chinese-sponsored six-party talks will yield some progress.

"They implied that they would give up all aspects of their nuclear program, not just [the] weapons program, and this is an interesting step on their part, a positive step. And we hope it will allow us to move more rapidly toward six-party framework talks," he said. "And what we're looking at is what should be the outcome of those talks, so that it is not just a discussion, but we see real progress at the end of those talks. And I'm encouraged. I'm encouraged by the statement the North Koreans made."

In Tuesday's statement, North Korea said it was prepared to refrain from testing and producing nuclear weapons, and to halt what it said was its nuclear power industry as the first-phase of a package solution to the nuclear crisis.

It said in return, it wants American aid, to be removed from the U.S. list of state supporters of terrorism, and written security guarantees from the United States.

The Bush administration, which rejected a similar North Korean offer in December, has said it is willing to be part of multi-lateral guarantees for North Korea's security in exchange for a verifiable and irreversible end to that country's nuclear weapons program. It has also pressed North Korea to return to the talks without preconditions.

An initial inconclusive round of talks, involving the United States, Russia, China, Japan and North and South Korea was held in Beijing last August.

Another round had been expected in December. But the date slipped amid disagreements over a statement of principles for the meeting being sought by China, and diplomats have said this week the talks might not reconvene until February.

In his comments here, Mr. Powell said he is "convinced" that all those involved want to return to the talks, and he said the absence of plans for a new round does not mean the parties have not been talking to each other.

He said a "lot of papers have gone back and forth" among the participants, and that some of the parties have been in direct touch with Pyongyang.