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China to Host N. Korean Nuclear Talks in May - 2004-04-29

China has confirmed working meetings will convene next month on the North Korean nuclear issue. The May discussions are aimed at resolving obstacles to a third round of high-level talks.

Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Kong Quan told reporters the working level talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons programs will get under way May 12.

He says China, which is hosting the six-way negotiations, hopes the working group meeting will be a success.

The talks involving China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, and the United States will focus on details. High-level discussions on the broader issues are to take place in the coming months, and will follow two earlier rounds held in August and February.

At issue are demands by the United States and North Korea's neighbors for Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons programs. North Korea wants economic and security guarantees first.

North Korea agreed to start the working level discussions following a rare and secretive visit this month by leader Kim Jong Il to Beijing. Analysts say China - eager to see negotiations progress - likely pressured Mr. Kim to be more flexible.

The North Korean leader's visit followed that of Vice President Dick Cheney, who told Chinese officials it is becoming more urgent for North Korea to commit to complete and irreversible dismantlement of its nuclear weapons program.

The U.S. official said new intelligence has suggested that North Korea is developing nuclear weapons at a rate much faster than Washington earlier believed.

The Washington Post reported Wednesday that U.S. officials believe North Korea may possess as many as eight nuclear weapons, not two as previously assessed.

The nuclear standoff flared in October of 2002 when U.S. officials said North Korea had admitted to a secret program to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons. North Korea has since publicly admitted to having a plutonium-based program - violating international accords - and it has expelled U.N. monitors and withdrawn from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.