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US Official Confident About New Round of N. Korea Talks - 2004-01-30

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, on a visit to China, expressed hope that a new round of talks on the North Korean nuclear crisis would get under way soon. The U.S. diplomat also expressed Washington's apprehension over a planned referendum in Taiwan.

Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage met with Chinese officials Friday, including the country's defense minister and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.

In comments afterward to reporters, Mr. Armitage praised China's efforts to organize a new round of six-way talks to resolve the North Korean nuclear dispute. He said he hopes negotiations will resume soon, but stopped short of speculating on when that might happen.

The U.S. official said there is no particular issue holding up the resumption of negotiations, which have been stalled since the first round in August. But he said suspicions on the part of North Korea play a part.

"It's just the general difficulty of herding six of us in the same direction at the same time while simultaneously dealing with what clearly is a legacy of suspicion," he said.

The negotiations involve China, Japan, North and South Korea, Russia, and the United States.

The dispute centers on demands by the United States and its allies that North Korea dismantle its nuclear weapons program. North Korea is asking for U.S. security and economic guarantees in return.

A delegation of officials from Australia, which is not a party to the talks but which has diplomatic relations with North Korea, traveled to Pyongyang Friday in an attempt to move the North Koreans back to the negotiating table.

Mr. Armitage says he and Chinese officials also discussed the contentious issue of Taiwan, and he said Beijing sought new assurances that the United States considers the self-governed island as a part of China.

Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian has angered China by scheduling a referendum in March. The referendum's wording asks voters to decide whether Taiwan should boost its defenses if China does not stop pointing hundreds of missiles at the island.

Mr. Armitage said he expressed Washington's doubts about the measure.

"As I understand it, referendums are generally reserved for items or issues which are either very divisive or very difficult, and the wording that I've seen of the referendum seems to be neither divisive nor difficult," said Mr. Armitage. "So I think it raises some questions about the motives of those who want to put it forward."

China has threatened to use force if Taiwan moves toward independence or is slow to seek unification with the mainland, and some see the referendum as a possible forerunner to an independence movement.

The United States has an agreement with Taiwan to defend it if China should ever attack. President Bush, however, recently said the United States opposes unilateral action by either side to change the island's current status.