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Delegates Prepare for N. Korea Nuclear Talks in Beijing - 2004-02-23

Delegates are arriving in Beijing for Wednesday's talks on North Korea's nuclear programs. Diplomats from six countries are trying to establish their positions before the meeting begins.

Preparations intensified as nations began laying out their positions for the talks that are aimed at persuading Pyongyang to give up its nuclear ambitions.

The talks that begin Wednesday will bring together delegates from North Korea, South Korea, Japan, Russia and the United States.

South Korean, Japanese, and U.S. officials met on Monday in Seoul to discuss their demands for North Korea. Following the consultations, Seoul's top negotiator, Lee Soo-hyuck, said South Korea would push for a three-stage proposal.

Mr. Lee says the first stage would require North Korea to pledge to abolish its nuclear programs, while the United States and its allies would commit to security guarantees for Pyongyang. The second stage would be a freeze of North Korea's program. Stage three would be what Mr. Lee described as a comprehensive proposal in which other issues are addressed.

China said its Deputy Foreign Minister Wang Yi and the chief Russian delegate, Alexander Losyukov, had reached a consensus after a meeting Monday. Chinese officials gave no details on what that agreement is.

Beijing and Moscow have voiced their support for North Korea's proposal to freeze its nuclear program in exchange for security guarantees. Mr. Losyukov said a freeze would be a good first step toward ending the dispute.

The crisis flared in 2002 when the United States said North Korea admitted having a secret nuclear-weapons program in violation of several international agreements. While Pyongyang has denied making that admission, it has restarted an older weapons program and insisted it needs nuclear bombs to deter the United States from attacking.

The first round of talks on the issue last August ended with no progress.

No one expects the negotiations this time to be easy, and matters appeared to be complicated Monday when German officials said eight people claiming to be North Koreans sought asylum at a German government-run school in Beijing.

German embassy spokesman Manfred Huterer confirmed that the eight entered the school compound. "The German foreign ministry is now actively looking for a solution to this problem," he said.

China usually sends North Korean asylum seekers home, where humanitarian agency officials say they face persecution. During the past few years, Beijing has allowed a few hundred of them to go to South Korea after they managed to slip onto diplomatic compounds.

China has refused the to give the U.N. refugee agency access to its border with North Korea, insisting the asylum seekers in the area are illegal migrants and are not entitled to refugee status.