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US Holds Rare One-To-One Talks With North Korea

US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill (L) listens during the six-party talks at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, 26 July 2005. The US said 26 July it recognised North Korea as a 'sovereign nation' and was ready to address Pyongyang's security concerns as it called for a full and verifiable dismantling of the north's nuclear weapons. AFP PHOTO/Guang Niu/Pool

Beijing (AFP) Jul 25, 2005
The United States Monday described a rare initial meeting with a North Korea delegation as "businesslike" on the eve of six-nation talks aimed at ending the Stalinist state's nuclear ambitions.

"Certainly the atmosphere was good. The meeting with the DPRK (North Korea) in particular was a very businesslike atmosphere, we were able to discuss some specific approaches to the issues," a senior US government official said at press briefing.

The bilateral contact came a day before the scheduled reopening of six-party talks that were broken off last year, but was only meant to establish procedures on the negotiations concerning Pyongyang's nuclear programme, the official said.

"We've agreed on a set of modalities ... on how we might proceed, looking at issues that we might try and lock in for this session, so that when we go to the next session we'll be able to build on this," the official said.

Top US negotiator Christopher Hill told reporters before the 75-minute talks that "these are not negotiations."

It was, however, the first time the US and North Korea have held a bilateral meeting before the six-party process, which seeks an end to the North's nuclear arms drive in return for diplomatic and economic benefits.

The American side has called for "real progress" and said each country's position, including the two Koreas, Russia, Japan and China as host, would be better understood when talks officially began Tuesday at 9:00 am (0100 GMT).

With no progress made in the previous three rounds officials warned there was no timetable for their end.

"We've agreed, to the certain nervousness of the Chinese hosts, to have a session where do we do not have an end time," said the US official.

North Korea abandoned the talks last year and has since claimed it already possesses nuclear weapons, heightening tension over what the International Atomic Energy Agency calls the world's most dangerous nuclear proliferation issue.

"We have to produce an agreement this time. There was a dialogue conscious of such a goal," a South Korean government official said after his nation's talks with the US delegation.

In a flurry of diplomacy before the formal opening of the talks, North Korea met South Korea on Sunday and Russia on Monday while the United States sat down with the other nations in the six-way negotiations, China and Japan.

Deputy chief negotiators from each country also met for working-level talks.

"We have a common goal but still have lots of differences (on how to achieve it) as we are still at the beginning stage. The gaps should be narrowed in the future," said a South Korean official on condition of anonymity.

Eager to ensure the process gets off on the right foot the United States has signalled greater flexibility as it enters what is considered a crucial point after a 13-month deadlock.

A change in US rhetoric, including President George W. Bush's polite reference to the North Korean leader as "Mister Kim Jong Il," helped woo the Stalinist regime back to the bargaining table.

Bush had previously lumped North Korea with Iran and pre-war Iraq as an "axis of evil."

Japan's Kyodo news agency said the US could be ready to set up a liaison office -- the lowest level of diplomatic representation -- in Pyongyang if it abandons its nuclear program.

Hill did not deny the report when questioned about it.

North Korea has said the United States must establish diplomatic relations with it and offer assurances of non-aggression for progress to be made.

The standoff was sparked in October 2002 when Washington accused the North of operating a nuclear weapons program based on enriched uranium in violation of a 1994 agreement.

The last round of talks collapsed in June 2004 when North Korea rejected a US offer which would have required an up-front pledge to dismantle all its nuclear programs before it could get energy and other assistance.

The North instead wanted a step-by-step approach, fearing it could come under attack by the United States.

On Friday it called for a peace treaty with the United States to replace an armistice reached at the end of the Korean War in 1953, saying this could persuade it to drop its nuclear program.

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Despite Tehran's vociferous claims to the contrary, evidence is mounting that Iran is seeking to acquire nuclear weapons. It may now even be too late to stop this process. The real question is: What should the United States do about it?

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