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Rice, S. Korea Urge N. Korea to Resume Nuke Talks

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged North Korea on Thursday to heed international calls to return to stalled six-nation talks on its nuclear program.

During a meeting with South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon, Rice emphasized the importance of efforts to break a deadlock in negotiations and persuade North Korea to scrap its nuclear programs.

"We are both urging North Korea to come back to the talks without conditions," Rice told reporters at an appearance with Ban.

"North Korea is being told by the international community that it has to be a Korean Peninsula that is free of nuclear weapons, and that North Korea must dismantle its nuclear programs," Rice said.

Diplomats from the Koreas, China, the United States, Russia and Japan ended the latest round of negotiations in November. The prospect of a resumption of the talks, which began in 2003, is uncertain.

The North has said it won't resume negotiations until the United States ends financial sanctions meant to halt alleged weapons proliferation and counterfeit currency distribution by North Korea. The U.S. says nuclear negotiations are unconnected to the sanctions.

"We hope that we'll have early resumption of the six-party process," Ban said.

The meeting between Rice and Ban follows reports that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, in a rare foreign trip, told China's president he was committed to a peaceful resolution of the nuclear standoff.

Ban told reporters Thursday, "We take note of what chairman Kim Jong Il has said — that he reaffirmed a commitment to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula and also a commitment to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue peacefully through dialogue."

North Korea pledged on Sept. 19 to scrap its nuclear programs in return for aid and security assurances, a statement that was hailed as a breakthrough in the Korean peninsula's long nuclear saga.

The optimism hasn't lasted: Four months later, six-nation nuclear talks are deadlocked as the communist-led North backtracks and tension escalates between Washington and Pyongyang.

Even so, South Korean news reports this week said U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the lead American envoy to the talks, met Wednesday in Beijing with his North Korean counterpart, Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan, to discuss reviving their efforts.

China said Thursday that it has set up a meeting between U.S. and North Korean officials this week in Beijing to try to restart six-nation talks on the North's nuclear programs.