North Korea Agrees To Nuke Talks

North Korea said Friday it has agreed to multilateral talks on its suspected nuclear weapons programs but will push for one-on-one talks with the United States during the proposed negotiations.

The Bush administration welcomed that agreement and said it was open to direct talks between Washington and Pyongyang as part of that process.

"What's most important is that North Korea moves forward on ending its nuclear weapons program," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Friday.

U.S. officials believe North Korea already may possess one or two nuclear bombs and has plans to build more.

North Korean officials delivered the proposal during a meeting with U.S. officials in New York on Thursday, Korean time, a spokesman for the communist North's Foreign Ministry told Pyongyang's official news agency, KCNA.

North Korea has insisted for months on bilateral talks with Washington and its willingness to accept U.S.-proposed six-party talks was seen as a concession.

But the comments also indicated that the isolated country might try hard to elicit U.S. concessions, while stalling talks involving the other countries. North Korea has insisted that the nuclear issue is essentially a bilateral matter with the United States, while Washington considers it a regional concern.

The North Korean spokesman said Pyongyang agreed to multilateral talks involving the two Koreas, the United States, Japan, China and Russia after Washington told North Korea the two sides can meet separately during those multilateral talks.

"Some time ago the U.S. informed the DPRK through a third party that the DPRK-U.S. bilateral talks may be held within the framework of multilateral talks," KCNA quoted the spokesman as saying.

DPRK is the acronym for the North's official name, Democratic Republic of Korea.

North Korea did not say when the proposed talks could take place, though news reports have said they could happen in September. It said its proposal "is now under discussion."

McClellan said Friday the details and timing are "being worked out with our friends and allies in the region."

The last time the United States and North Korea had official talks was in April in Beijing, but they have had unofficial talks in New York since then, via North Korean diplomats at the United Nations.

The United States expects to bring specific proposals to the talks, including ways of insuring that North Korea ends its nuclear programs in a "verifiable and irreversible manner," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said earlier.

North Korea's neighbors reacted with cautious optimism.

"Perhaps North Korea is beginning to ease a little bit," Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said. "We should promote multilateral talks and let North Korea hear the voices of the international community."

South Korea acknowledged being informed of the North's decision, while the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Beijing said it was receptive to the idea of having more nations join in the talks.

The nuclear standoff began in October when North Korea acknowledged to U.S. officials it had a uranium-based nuclear weapons program.

Since late last year, North Korea has withdrawn from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, restarted a plutonium-producing nuclear reactor and told U.S. officials it had reprocessed 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods.

The last procedure, experts say, could yield enough plutonium to make several nuclear bombs within months. U.S. officials have not been able to confirm that claim.

North Korea had tried for months to lure the United States into a discussion leading to a nonaggression pact. Washington says it wants the nuclear dispute resolved peacefully but has not ruled out a military option.