BEIJING – U.S., Chinese and North Korean negotiators gathered Wednesday in a move toward resolving a standoff over the North's suspected nuclear weapons program, ending six months of verbal sparring that pushed tensions on the Korean Peninsula (more news | Web) to their highest level in years.
There was no immediate word of any progress, with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, leader of the American delegation, saying only, "No words today, thank you."
Even as the delegates arrived at the meeting site to continue talks Thursday, North Korea's official news agency warned that the tense situation on the Korean Peninsula could lead to war. But the report also hinted that the communist government was willing to settle the nuclear dispute.
Secretary of State Colin Powell (more news | Web) indicated in comments Wednesday that expectations for the talks weren't high, saying no proposals would be made during the meetings, which continue through Friday.
"In this first set of meetings, nothing is being put on the table," Powell told CBS. "We'll begin a set of discussions. They will hear what we think about the situation.
"They will hear our strong views. We expect the North Koreans to present their views strongly and we certainly expect the Chinese to present their views strongly."
The tensions over the isolated North began in October, when Washington said Pyongyang revealed it was trying to develop nuclear weapons in violation of a 1994 pledge. Washington believes North Korea has one or two atomic bombs and was trying to create more.
The North has disputed the U.S. claim, saying its program is meant to generate electricity.
Pyongyang then kicked out international monitors from its Yongbyon nuclear complex and restarted a plutonium-producing reactor. It later withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, becoming the first country to do so, and even threatened to abandon the armistice ending the 1950-53 Korean War.
In its report Thursday, North Korea's KCNA news agency said: "In actuality, the situation on the Korean Peninsula is so tense that a war may break out any moment." Pyongyang has made similar predictions in the past.
But in a more conciliatory comment, North Korea said it was ready to settle the dispute over its suspected nuclear weapons programs and that a resolution was up to the United States.
"The U.S. should settle the talks from a sincere stand and strive to settle the essential issue," KCNA said, without elaborating further.
There was widespread confusion last week after the North released a statement saying it was reprocessing spent fuel rods. Intelligence experts say that would enable North Korea to produce enough plutonium to build several nuclear bombs within months.
Officials later said the statement may have been a bad translation and Washington said there was no evidence the North was reprocessing the fuel rods, which power nuclear reactors.
The North repeatedly has accused the United States of preparing an invasion after the Iraqi war ends. It has called for the United States to guarantee its security and is believed to want aid for its economy, which is crippled by the loss of Soviet subsidies and years of drought and mismanagement.
U.S. officials say they will not offer a formal treaty but might provide a less formal commitment not to attack.
Foreign diplomats in Beijing and Chinese experts say they do not expect the talks to produce any immediate agreements. They say the sides probably will spend much of their time staking out basic positions.
"I can't see anything firmer than an agreement to meet again," one Western diplomat said on condition of anonymity.
A U.S. Embassy spokeswoman said on condition of anonymity that the meeting began as scheduled. She said she had no details on what was discussed Wednesday or how long the meeting lasted.
Earlier Wednesday, Kelly met with Chinese officials for what the U.S. Embassy described as a "working breakfast."
The talks bring together the three governments for the first time since the three negotiated the armistice ending the Korean War. China fought on North Korea's side, and the United States fought with South Korea.
The United States still has 37,000 soldiers on the peninsula, and the frontier is among the world's most heavily armed.
North Korea had demanded one-on-one talks with the United States, but Washington maintained the situation was a regional problem and several other countries needed to be involved.
The two sides finally agreed China would participate as well, though its role is unclear. Japan and South Korea hope to join subsequent discussions and have sent diplomats to Beijing to monitor the talks, and Powell said the United States wants both countries to be included later on.
Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said Wednesday that Russia, which shares a small stretch of border with North Korea, also would participate if asked.
Kelly is scheduled to visit Seoul for meetings immediately after the Beijing talks.
China, the North's chief ally, has expressed concerns about Pyongyang's nuclear program and is believed to have played a role in persuading the North to agree to the three-way talks. Officials from Seoul and Washington have said the swift U.S.-led victory in Iraq prompted North Korea to agree to talks.
President Bush has taken a hardline approach to North Korea, calling it part of an "axis of evil" with Iran and prewar Iraq.
He also has refused to rule out a military option, and sent F-117A stealth fighters to South Korea as a deterrent and B-52 bombers and B-1 bombers to the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam as a precaution.