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US, Japan, S. Korea Diplomats Meet in Push to Re-Start N. Korea Nuclear Talks - 2004-01-22

Senior U.S., Japanese and South Korean diplomats met in Washington Thursday on efforts to convene new six-party talks on ending the North Korean nuclear program. U.S. delegation chief James Kelly said he was hopeful of a new round soon, but provided no starting date.

The effort to resume the Chinese-sponsored negotiations has been eclipsed somewhat by the North Korean gesture earlier this month allowing private U.S. delegations to visit its secrecy-shrouded nuclear complex at Yongbyon.

In a talk with reporters after the three-way meeting here, Assistant Secretary of State Kelly said he hoped the highly-publicized visits will not distract attention from the business at hand, getting North Korea to return to talks on a verifiable end to its nuclear weapons efforts.

"We hope the DPRK doesn't misjudge these private delegations," he said. "This is interesting but we hope it doesn't distract or delay the process of getting to the serious work among the several countries to get to resolving the nuclear weapons program that North Korea has got."

Mr. Kelly said the Bush administration is "steadfast" in its commitment to a peaceful resolution of the issue, while stressing that the end result must be the "complete, verifiable and irreversible" end to the North Korea program. He said this must include not only the dismantling of weapons but an end to extraction of plutonium and uranium enrichment.

North Korea has in recent days contested the U.S. assertion that it admitted to a covert uranium-enrichment effort during a pivotal visit there by Mr. Kelly in October, 2002. But under questioning, the assistant secretary said he is sure there was no misunderstanding about what he was told.

"I remain convinced by that conversation that a uranium-enrichment program was admitted," he said. "But I knew that before. We weren't asking for such an admission, and it was surprising only in terms of tactics. This is information that we're very strongly convinced about."

Mr. Kelly was joined in the talks in Washington by South Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Lee Soo-Hyuck and Japanese Foreign Ministry Director-General Mitoji Yabunaka, who stressed his government's interest in normalizing relations with, and providing aid to, North Korea once the nuclear issue is settled.

A senior U.S. diplomat said he believes China will be able to talk North Korea into returning to talks, though he advised patience in a diplomatic process he described as "glacial."

The initial round, involving Japan and Russia as well as the United States, China, and North and South Korea ended inconclusively after three days of meetings in Beijing last August.

The United States has said it is willing to join in multi-lateral guarantees for North Korea's security if Pyongyang dismantled its nuclear program.

But the process has been slowed by disagreement over the sequencing of such an arrangement, and the wording of a statement for the next round.