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N. Korea Comes To Nuke Table

North Korea said Saturday it will abandon its yearlong boycott of nuclear disarmament talks and resume negotiations this month with the U.S. and four other nations, a breakthrough reached just as U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice began a mission to end the impasse.

North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan informed U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill that his country is prepared to return to the talks during the week of July 25.

Word of the North Korean decision came as Rice arrived in Beijing, the first stop on a four-country tour devoted primarily to the North Korea situation.

A senior U.S. official who spoke with reporters accompanying Rice said Kim told Hill that North Korea's purpose in the talks will be denuclearization, and that its negotiators will be intent on making progress.

North Korea's official Central News Agency confirmed the July 25 time frame. "The U.S. side clarified its official stand to recognize (North Korea) as a sovereign state, not to invade it and hold bilateral talks within the framework of the six-party talks," KCNA reported.

The six-party process, in addition to the United States and North Korea, involves China, South Korea, Japan and Russia. A Russian foreign ministry spokesman said the North's decision was welcome news.

Three rounds of largely fruitless talks were held in 2003 and 2004; there have been discussions over the past year.

North Korea blamed "hostile policies" of the United States, including statements by U.S. officials that it considered inflammatory and disrespectful. Rice, for example, listed North Korea as an "outpost of tyranny" during her confirmation hearings last January.

U.S. President George W. Bush and Rice have dropped such rhetoric lately, in an apparent bid to encourage North Korean flexibility. En route here on Saturday, Rice used no pejorative language about North Korea and stressed that the United States respects North Korean sovereignty and has no plans to attack the country.

North Korea was a priority for Rice heading into meetings Sunday with Chinese President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao and Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing.

There have been a number of recent signs of North Korean interest in ending the boycott. Five weeks ago, North Korean diplomats at the United Nations expressed such interest during a meeting with two U.S. State Department officials.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il also held out the possibility of a resumption during talks last month with South Korean Unification Minister Chung Dong-young.

The United States recently announced a 50,000-ton (55,000 metric tons) food donation for North Korea. The timing of the announcement was seen as a gesture toward North Korea. The administration said it was a humanitarian donation and denied that it was related to nuclear diplomacy.

A range of possible dates for resuming the talks have been discussed. During a dinner here Saturday night, held at a Chinese Foreign Ministry dining facility, Kim said his government had chosen the week of July 25, the U.S. administration official said.

For years, the U.S. government has believed that North Korea possesses at least two nuclear weapons. Intelligence analysts believe that the country may have acquired several more in the recent past.

North Korea readily acknowledges that it has a plutonium-based nuclear weapons capability. It confirmed to U.S. officials three years ago that it also has a uranium-based program but it has since retracted those statements.

The United States has been seeking the verifiable disarmament of North Korea's nuclear weapons programs. In exchange, North Korea would receive energy and a host of other economic benefits from the United States, Japan, South Korea and other donor countries.

Reaching a disarmament agreement with the North would be extraordinarily difficult. It would have to dismantle the plutonium program it acknowledges and allow the creation of an intrusive verification system. The same would apply to the uranium-based program, which it denies possessing.

Despite the nuclear standoff, cooperation between North and South Korea has continued.

A North Korean delegation arrived Saturday in Seoul for economic cooperation talks. The two Koreas resumed contact in May following a 10-month freeze when the North was angered by mass defections of its citizens to the South.

After concluding her talks here on Sunday, Rice will fly to the Thai resort city of Phuket, which was devastated by last December's tsunami. Her final stops will be Japan and South Korea.

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