WASHINGTON – North Korea (search) has dropped its insistence on one-on-one talks with the United States and is ready to accept a U.S. proposal for six-nation negotiations on ending its nuclear weapons programs, the State Department said Thursday.
Officials said they expect the United States and North Korea to be joined by China (search), South Korea, Japan and Russia to discuss the issue in the near future.
The Bush administration has sought such six-way talks, but North Korea had insisted on a bilateral meeting with the United States to negotiate a nonaggression treaty.
Officials said President Bush learned of North Korea's acceptance from Chinese President Hu Jintao on Wednesday.
"We're very encouraged by indications that North Korea is accepting our proposals for multilateral talks," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.
In April, officials from the United States, North Korea and China met in Beijing to review the situation. Since then, the administration has insisted that Japan and South Korea be allowed to take part in a second round, and said that Russia would be a welcome participant.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry in Beijing said it had not seen the report and would not immediately comment. Beijing, the isolated North's last major ally, has repeatedly said it doesn't want nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula (search), and wants the issue resolved peacefully through negotiations.
U.S. officials said North Korea apparently felt more comfortable with a six-way discussion that includes Russia rather than a five-way arrangement without Moscow.
Both Japan and South Korea are U.S. treaty allies. Russia, while not, is on friendly terms with North Korea.
Pyongyang may perceive Russia as restoring a balance to the talks, said Park June-young, a North Korea expert at Ewha Woman's University in Seoul.
"Japan is on the U.S. side and we can't say South Korea is on North Korea's side, so in five-way talks it would be three versus two even if China stands on North Korea's side," he said. "By including Russia, North Korea believes it can make it three versus three."
The first public word of the apparent breakthrough came from Moscow, where North Korean Ambassador Pak Ui Chun met with Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Yuri Fedotov.
Pak said the North Korean leadership instructed him to express his country's support for "six-sided talks with the participation of Russia on resolving the current complex situation on the Korean Peninsula."
The United States first broached the idea of a broad international negotiation last fall after North Korea confirmed U.S. suspicions that it was developing uranium-based nuclear weapons.
The disclosure caused concern, and North Korea's behavior since then has caused even morel anxiety among the United States and North Korea's neighbors.
North Korea withdrew 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. That 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.
All the while, North Korea was rejecting U.S. proposals for expanded multilateral talks. For much of this year, North Korea has issued frequent warnings about a possible nuclear war.
The April talks in Beijing did not go smoothly. According to a senior administration official, North Korea's lead official at the talks confirmed U.S. suspicions that the North already has nuclear weapons and may test, export or use them, depending on U.S. actions.
The North Koreans also expressed a willingness at those talks to dispose of their nuclear weapons programs as well as their missiles -- another major U.S. concern -- in exchange for economic benefits, including energy aid.
The administration has said the United States and other donor countries would be able to provide substantial economic help so long as the reclusive communist state first dismantled its weapons of mass destruction.
Boucher said the United States, when the next round of talks begins, will present its ideas about how North Korea can end these programs "in a verifiable and irreversible manner."
The White House said last week that North Korea could not expect any concessions before U.S. disarmament demands were met.
"We've made it very clear that we will not give in to blackmail, we will not grant inducements for the North to live up to its obligations," presidential spokesman Scott McClellan said
Not long before Boucher spoke, John Bolton, the administration's top arms control official, told a gathering in South Korea that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was a "tyrannical dictator."
"While he lives like royalty in Pyongyang, he keeps hundreds of thousands of people locked in prison camps with millions more mired in abject poverty, scrounging the ground for food. For many in North Korea, life is a hellish nightmare," Bolton said.