Korea Talks Could Start Soon

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North Korea said Monday that U.S.-proposed six-nation talks on the communist state's suspected development of nuclear weapons will begin "soon" in Beijing, while a South Korean official said they would begin early next month.

North Korea and the United States announced last Friday that they had agreed to hold multilateral talks on North Korea's nuclear programs. The proposed talks will include the two Koreas, the United States, Japan, China and Russia.

"The six-way talks to resolve the nuclear problem between North Korea and the United States will take place soon in Beijing thanks to the North's active and peace-loving efforts," Pyongyang's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The statement was carried by the North's official news agency, KCNA, and was monitored by South Korean news agency Yonhap.

In Seoul, Shin Eon-sang, assistant minister for unification policy at Seoul's Unification Ministry, said that although no final decisions were made on the date and venue for the talks, "the first round of talks are expected to be held in Beijing in early September."

Pyongyang agreed to the six-way meeting after saying for months that it would only consent to bilateral talks with the United States. The North says it will work on the sidelines of the negotiations to push for one-on-one talks with Washington, which has insisted on multilateral talks because it says the North's nuclear program is a regional concern.

The nuclear standoff began in October, when U.S. officials said North Korea acknowledged having a uranium-based nuclear weapons program. That led the United States to cut off fuel shipments to North Korea that had operated under a 1994 deal halting the North's nuclear development.

Pyongyang subsequently threw out international inspectors and vowed to begin reprocessing spent fuel rods into bomb-making plutonium. In a series of public boasts and private statements to envoys in the ensuing months, North Korea has said that it has nearly completed that reprocessing, although U.S. intelligence could not confirm it.

The last time the United States and North Korea had official talks was in April in Beijing. U.S. officials said that North Korea claimed at the talks it already had nuclear bombs and planned to build more.

U.S. officials believe North Korea already has one or two nuclear bombs and can yield enough plutonium from its 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods to build several more within months. There are also indications the North is preparing for some kind of nuclear test.

On Saturday, the North warned that any moves to discuss its suspected nuclear weapons programs at the United Nations would "hamstring" efforts for dialogue and be a "prelude to war."

North Korea accuses the United Nations of siding with the United States to stifle it and fears the world body may impose economic sanctions on the impoverished communist nation.

"The U.S. intention to bring up the nuclear issue ... at the U.N. at any cost is a grave criminal act to hamstring" North Korea's efforts for dialogue, the official KCNA news agency said. "Any move to discuss the nuclear issue at the U.N. Security Council is little short of a prelude to a war," it said, reiterating similar comments made in the past.

On Thursday, U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton criticized the Security Council, saying its credibility was at stake because it had failed to take up the North Korean nuclear issue.

China, the North's closest ally and a permanent member of the Security Council, had thwarted previous U.S. attempts to have the council condemn the North over its nuclear ambitions.

An early U.N. discussion of North Korea seems unlikely. Even South Korea, a U.S. ally, has said all diplomatic options should be exhausted before the Security Council takes up the issue.

President Bush said Friday he sees hope that North Korea can be persuaded to dismantle its nuclear weapons programs because that goal is shared by the United States and the other countries at the talks.

"In the past it was the lone voice of the United States speaking clearly about this. Now we'll have other parties who have got a vested interest in peace on the Korean peninsula," Mr. Bush said.