WASHINGTON – President Bush is hailing as a "positive development" North Korea's agreement to hold multilateral talks aimed at dismantling the communist country's nuclear weapons program.
But a White House spokesman cautioned that the real work will begin once the talks get under way.
"We're upbeat about the fact that others are assuming responsibility for peace besides the United States of America. And we'll see how the dialogue goes," Bush told reporters Friday after a meeting with his Cabinet.
The White House confirmed what North Korea's government-run news agency KCNA in Pyongyang disclosed earlier — that North Korea has agreed to talks with the United States, South Korea, China, Japan and Russia. Previously, the Democratic Republic of Korea (search), as it is officially known, insisted on direct talks with the United States. They continue to push for those as well.
Bush thanked Chinese President Hu Jintao (search), who informed the president of this latest development in a telephone call on Wednesday.
Beijing, the isolated North's last major ally, has repeatedly said it doesn't want nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula, and wants the issue resolved peacefully through negotiations.
Bush said he is hopeful the talks will succeed, and explained why he felt it is critical that they include parties other than the United States and North Korea.
"The discussion will be all aimed at convincing [North Korean President] Mr. Kim Jong-Il to change his attitude about nuclear weaponry. In the past, it was the lone voice of the United States speaking clearly about this; now, we'll have other parties that have got a vested interest in peace on the Korean peninsula," Bush said.
Bush added that it is important to have other parties in the room because Kim Jong-Il has previously lied about the commitments he made.
On Thursday, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher (search) said the United States will present ideas about how North Korea can end its nuclear programs "in a verifiable and irreversible manner."
Verification of any arms control agreement is difficult, no matter how cooperative the country promising to disarm may be — and North Korea is not known for its transparency.
The current phase of the U.S.-North Korean nuclear standoff began last October with North Korea's acknowledgment to U.S. officials that it has a uranium-based nuclear weapons program. It also has been working on a plutonium-based program in recent months.
North Korea had tried for months to lure the United States into a one-on-one discussion leading to a nonaggression pact.
The United States held out for a broadly based international conclave on grounds that North Korea's development of nuclear weapons has implications for a number of countries, not just the United States.
Washington was especially insistent on the inclusion of Japan and South Korea.
Pyongyang may have insisted on including Russia to restore 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."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters on Friday: "We will stick to the multilateral approach" but added that the North Koreans "can always talk directly to us in the multilateral setting across the table."
In those talks, the United States will not grant inducements for North Korea to live up to its obligations
The time and place for the discussions has not been set yet.
Fox News' James Rosen and The Associated Press contributed to this report.