Japan: N. Korea Ready to Abandon Nuke Program

Japan (search) said Monday that North Korea (search) has expressed "readiness" to abolish its nuclear program and the United States hinted at new flexibility as well, as diplomats streamed into the Chinese capital for a six-nation meeting.

The United States is considering a proposal by Seoul (search) to encourage North Korea to freeze its nuclear weapons program, a top South Korean nuclear negotiator said. And a Japanese diplomat, after meeting with his Chinese counterpart, said the North might be willing to "completely abandon" its program.

Progress, or the appearance of it, came in a flurry of diplomacy ahead of the first six-party talks on Pyongyang's nuclear program since August, when the first round ended with little changed and only a loose commitment to meet again.

The new talks convene Wednesday in Beijing, where the Chinese government -- longtime communist ally of the North and pivotal economic partner of the United States -- has worked for months to broker a new round. The Russian, American and Japanese delegations arrived Monday, and the North and South Koreans were due Tuesday.

At issue is North Korea's nuclear program and, in particular, allegations that Pyongyang has a uranium-based weapons program as well as its known plutonium-based one.

In Washington, a senior U.S. official said the six countries involved in the talks may deploy specialists in China on a permanent basis to improve communication.

The possibility is expected to be discussed when the United States and the four regional countries meet with North Korean officials starting Wednesday, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

U.S. officials believe North Korea has at least one or two nuclear bombs from plutonium, though some experts believe Pyongyang does not have the technology and resources to mount a nuclear warhead on a missile.

In Seoul, the U.S. delegation leader, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, met with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts to devise a common stance ahead of the talks.

Lee Soo-hyuck, a top South Korean negotiator, said the United States was considering Seoul's proposal. He gave no details but said it entailed delivering "countermeasures" to the North in exchange for stopping and eventually dismantling its nuclear programs.

"The United States shares a significant understanding of the conditions we attached to the proposed North Korean nuclear freeze," Lee said after a meeting with Kelly and Japanese Foreign Ministry Director General Mitoji Yabunaka.

"We understand that the United States does not have a strong objection to taking the countermeasures proposed by South Korea as long as the nuclear freeze comes with such conditions," Lee said.

The United States had no immediate comment.

Meanwhile, Japanese Vice Foreign Minister Ichiro Aisawa quoted Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wang Yi as saying North Korea has expressed "readiness" to abolish its nuclear program. Aisawa spoke after meeting in Beijing with Wang, China's chief negotiator.

"He said North Korea had expressed to China its readiness to completely abandon its nuclear development, and said that the freeze was premised on that," Aisawa said in comments to reporters broadcast in Tokyo by the NHK network.

In December, North Korea proposed freezing its nuclear activities in return for economic aid and other concessions from the United States. Washington has demanded that North Korea start dismantling its nuclear programs first.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov said he supported Pyongyang's proposal to freeze its nuclear program, but called it just one step in the process. And South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun said he hoped the United States and North Korea would reach a compromise.

"North Korea is expected to propose a concession or two, and if this is the case, our side needs to make a concession to build trust," Roh said in an interview with Seoul's Maeil Business Newspaper.

Losyukov, in Beijing, said he was cautiously optimistic about the upcoming talks, but he acknowledged what China's official Xinhua News Agency called "a number of uncertainties." He didn't elaborate, though he said the views of Russia and China are "very close." Later Monday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said Losyukov and Wang had found common ground.

"The two sides had an in-depth exchange of views on the well proceeding of the six-party talks and reached wide consensus," according to the ministry.

The nuclear crisis flared in late 2002 when U.S. officials said North Korea had acknowledged privately to Kelly that it had a uranium program in violation of a 1994 agreement. North Korea later denied having a uranium program and on Saturday called the accusations a "whopping lie."

It's unclear how that issue will play out during the talks, Kelly said in Seoul. "We will have to find out in Beijing," he said.