WASHINGTON – New talks aimed at resolving the future of North Korea's nuclear ambitions could come in January but not earlier because of the communist state's continued insistence on preconditions, senior Bush administration officials said Saturday.
The United States and its allies in the region want to persuade North Korea to end its nuclear programs through six-nation talks. The first round, held in Beijing in August, ended without much progress.
Discussions over a U.S.-backed plan for easing tensions with North Korea (search) are continuing among the United States, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea, U.S. officials said.
The countries have not hit major snags over what eventually could become a joint statement to be released at the end of a new round of talks, and the debate over the past week has focused mainly on fine-tuning the document, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The administration does not see a need for the language to be worked out completely before talks can go ahead, the officials said. Standing in the way, they said, are North Korea's demands for concessions before officials from the North will come to the table.
Washington has offered North Korea a written security guarantee, but the North has said it wants a formal nonaggression treaty that promises the United States will not attack.
North Korea indicated last week it would join the talks and freeze its nuclear weapons activities only if the United States agreed to remove the North from its list of terrorism-sponsoring countries and provide fuel and economic aid.
China has acted as a go-between with North Korea, and American officials say all indications are that the North is not backing down from its demands.
"We're willing to enter talks at an early date and with no preconditions," one official said.
The administration once said it would like to hold more talks before the end of the year, but as the year draws to a close, officials have backed off that goal.
A second official said that the White House is hoping another round can be set for January.
The United States, Japan and South Korea (search) presented a blueprint for ending the standoff to China last week. The plan broadly seeks the complete, verifiable and irrevocable dismantling — not freezing — of the North's atomic weapons program along with security assurances for Pyongyang.
In the fall of 2002, U.S. officials said North Korea admitted running a new nuclear weapons (search) program using enriched uranium in violation of international agreements.
Since then, North Korea has said it restarted its frozen reactor at Yongbyon, kicked out U.N. nuclear inspectors and quit the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (search). Experts have said it would take a year of operation before the reactor can produce enough to make a new weapon.