WASHINGTON – In a diplomatic breakthrough, the Bush administration said Tuesday it had wooed North Korea (search) back to negotiations on the Koreans' nuclear weapons program, though a date had not been set for reopening the long-stalled talks.
In New York, China's United Nations (search) ambassador said six-nation talks were likely to resume in the next few weeks in Beijing. Ambassador Wang Guangya told reporters the talks were the best way to resolve the nuclear standoff and said he was hopeful progress would be made.
The negotiations, in which the United States and four other countries want to halt North Korea's nuclear weapons (search) program, have been dormant for a year despite the North's promise to meet again last September. The turnabout followed a stream of North Korean invective directed at the Bush administration — but also came after a Pentagon threat to try to punish North Korea in the U.N. Security Council was withdrawn.
"This provides the North Koreans, we think, a basic choice, a pathway forward, in which they would again be able to potentially realize the respect that they have asked for and to get the assistance that they potentially need," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.
The Bush administration strongly favors the six-nation negotiations as the only format for dealing with North Korea's nuclear weapons program, resisting the North's repeated efforts to bargain solely with the United States.
McCormack said no preconditions were discussed when North Korean and U.S. officials met Monday at the North Korean mission to the United Nations in New York. He said the administration had made no decision on possibly resuming food shipments to North Korea, which needs them badly.
Prodding North Korea to halt its weapons program, the United States has long promised not to attack, and Japan and South Korea have dangled economic incentives.
Responding more than three weeks after a U.S. appeal, North Korean diplomats told the U.S. on Monday that their government "would return to the six-party process, but did not give us a time certain when they would return," McCormack said.
Likewise, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said, "They expressed their commitment to the six-party talks, but we did not get any indication that they were yet ready to return to the talks."
McCormack credited China, which has far more influence with Pyongyang than does the United States, with intervening to reopen the negotiations. "It is an important development, it is an important piece of progress," he said of the Chinese effort.
The other nations participating in the negotiations are South Korea, Japan and Russia.
North Korea has confirmed having some nuclear weapons, as claimed for years by U.S. intelligence analysts. There also have been indications recently that North Korea might be about to conduct a weapons test, but some U.S. officials are inclined to dismiss that as unfounded speculation.
In 1994, North Korea agreed to freeze its nuclear weapons program in exchange for energy assistance. But that agreement collapsed in 2002, when North Korea decided to revive activity at a nuclear plant at Yongbyan, where plutonium is reprocessed.
Soon after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Bush denounced North Korea as member of an "axis of evil" amid accusations that the North was secretly enriching uranium. Bush named Iraq and Iran as other members of that axis.
Last month, the State Department said it had not decided whether to provide food assistance to North Korea this year. There are other countries that need help, then-spokesman Richard Boucher said.
Last year's decision was made in late July, and one is likely by the end of the fiscal year, Sept. 30, he said.