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Annan: N. Korea May Freeze Nuke Program if Talks Go Well

North Korea (searchmight consider freezing its nuclear program if multilateral talks go well and it receives assurances from the United States that it will not be attacked, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (searchsaid late Friday.

He called for the talks on North Korea's nuclear program to get under way soon.

Washington had long pushed for multilateral talks (searchon the international standoff over North Korean's nuclear program. After months of insisting on bilateral talks, the North agreed Thursday to six-way discussions.

The secretary-general was asked whether North Korea might freeze its nuclear activities during the talks involving the two Koreas, the United States, Japan, China and Russia.

"I'm not sure if there's indication that they will freeze it during these talks," Annan told The Associated Press. "But there has been suggestions that if there is a discussion and agreement and an assurance that their nation is not under threat, they will be prepared to consider freezing it and ... resuming inspection with (the) atomic agency."

"But I'm not sure that they have given an indication they will do it before the talks. I suspect it will be part of the outcome of the talks," he said.

The nuclear dispute flared in October when U.S. officials said North Korea admitted it had a clandestine nuclear program in violation of a 1994 agreement with Washington. The United States and its allies responded by suspending fuel shipments promised under the agreement.

Pyongyang retaliated by expelling monitors with the International Atomic Energy Agency, restarting facilities capable of making fuel for nuclear bombs, and withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. It also told U.S. officials it had reprocessed 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods.

Earlier Friday, U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said Annan was "very encouraged by reports indicating a good prospect of early talks" involving the six parties.

"The secretary-general commends the recent efforts by the government of China, as well as other countries, in overcoming the current impasse. He will continue to support this diplomatic approach," Eckhard said.

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

No date has been set for the multilateral talks, which are expected to be held in China, and no decision has been made on the level of the officials who will attend.

North Korea said Friday it agreed to multilateral talks but will push for one-on-one talks with the United States on the sidelines of the negotiations.

Pyongyang has insisted on a nonaggression treaty with the United States.

"Since everybody seems to be pleased with the breakthrough ... I would advise that they move pretty soon, before other events set in," Annan told the AP on Friday night.