BEIJING – The U.S. and Chinese governments announced Tuesday that North Korea agreed to rejoin six-nation nuclear disarmament talks, a surprise diplomatic breakthrough that comes only three weeks after the communist regime conducted its first known atomic test.
The agreement was struck in a day of unpublicized discussions between the senior envoys from the United States, China and North Korea at a government guesthouse in Beijing. The U.S. negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, said the six-nation negotiations could resume as early as November or December.
"We took a step today toward getting this process back on track. This process has suffered a lot in recent weeks by the actions the DPRK has made," Hill told reporters afterward. DPRK stands for Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the North's official name.
The agreement is one of the first signs of easing tensions since North Korea conducted the underground detonation on Oct. 9, defying warnings from both the United States and Japan and its staunchest ally, China.
It also marks a diplomatic victory for China and the United States, which worked closely together in the wake of the test, but especially for Beijing. Though stung by Pyongyang's test, China had counseled against punishing North Korea too harshly, weakening a U.N. resolution sanctioning Pyongyang, and suggested leaving a path for diplomacy.
In a possible sign of Beijing's growing impatience with Pyongyang, Chinese exports of diesel and heating oil to North Korea dropped substantially in September from a year ago, though export of gasoline, liquefied petroleum gas, kerosene and jet fuel rose, according to Chinese customs data. China provides most of the North's oil.
President Bush hailed the agreement and credited China with helping to bring it about. "I am pleased and I want to thank the Chinese," the president told reporters in the Oval Office.
But he said the agreement would not halt the U.S. efforts to enforce the U.N. Security Council resolution that imposed sanctions on trade in military materials and luxury goods in response to the North's atomic test.
State Department spokesman Tom Casey said the U.S. would enter the new round of talks insisting they start with a September 2005 agreement forged between the six nations, in which Pyongyang pledged to scrap its nuclear programs in return for aid and security assurances.
Talks between the U.S. and North Korea over its nuclear programs have had a tortuous history, beginning in a 1990s round that led to a freeze which the Bush administration claims Pyongyang violated.
Starting first as a three-way parlay with Beijing, the current round of negotiations then added Japan, Russia and South Korea, before holding three on-again, off-again sessions. The negotiations stalled after the U.S. imposed financial sanctions over alleged counterfeiting and money laundering activities by Pyongyang and North Korea withdrew in November 2005.
Both the U.S. and North Korea showed flexibility at Tuesday's meeting, Hill said, with Washington agreeing to discuss the financial sanctions. The U.S. previously had said the issue was unrelated to talks on Pyongyang's nuclear program.
Pyongyang did not make the lifting of the financial sanctions a condition for resuming the talks, Hill said.
At the talks, Pyongyang's negotiator, Kim Gye Gwan, "made the point" that North Korea considered itself a nuclear power, Hill said. "I made it very clear that the United States does not accept the DPRK as a nuclear power and neither does China."
Other partners in the talks — Japan, Russia and South Korea — had mixed reactions to the announcement.
South Korea, which like China has urged engagement with Pyongyang, and Russia were optimistic about the prospects of resuming the negotiations.
"The government hopes that the six-party talks will resume at an early date as agreed," South Korea's Foreign Ministry spokesman Choo Kyu-ho said.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Alexeyev said Moscow views North Korea's decision as "extremely positive," ITAR-Tass and Interfax news agencies reported.
But Japan, which feels threatened by North Korea's nuclear and missile programs, took a more skeptical line.
While Tokyo welcomed the prospect of a new round of talks, it "does not intend to accept North Korea's return to the talks on the premise that it possess nuclear weapons," public broadcaster NHK quoted Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso as saying.
Aso added that a resumption of talks "is conditional on North Korea not possessing nuclear weapons."
Calls to the North Korean Embassy in Beijing seeking comment went unanswered.
China's Foreign Ministry released a brief statement, the first word of the breakthrough, saying that an agreement was struck on North Korea's rejoining the talks, but issued no other comment.
Hill cautioned that much work needed to be done to prepare for the resumption of talks. "We're a long way from our goals here," he said. "I have not broken out the champagne and cigars yet."
Key in the coming days, Hill said, would be intense preparations by all parties to make sure a new round would deal substantively with an agreement reached at the last session of six-party talks at a September 2005 session of the six-party talks. The last meeting, in November, fizzled amid disagreement over steps on implementing the accord.
Among the issues would be how would North Korea takes steps to ultimately give up its nuclear programs, he said. Other issues, such as a South Korean proposal to provide electricity to the impoverished North and how to set up mechanism, perhaps a working group, to discuss the U.S. financial sanctions, also were likely be explored, he said.
Hill described intense backstage Chinese efforts to get the six-party talks on track, saying Beijing contacted Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice late last week to ask if she would dispatch him to Beijing for a three-way discussion with North Korea.
Hill, who had been in the South Pacific at a forum of regional governments, cut short a visit to Australia, arriving in Beijing late Monday for Tuesday's talks.
North Korea is believed to have enough radioactive material to make about a half-dozen bombs, but estimates vary due to limited intelligence about its nuclear program.
The apparent North Korean agreement followed a day of typically bellicose rhetoric from Pyongyang.
North Korea warned South Korea on Tuesday against participating in a U.S.-led international drive to stop and search ships carrying weapons of mass destruction, saying involvement would bring about unspecified "catastrophic consequences."
The warning released by Pyongyang's official news agency came as South Korea is considering whether to fully participate in the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative aimed at interdicting shipments of weapons of mass destruction and other suspected cargo.
Seoul has been reluctant to take full part in the initiative out of concern it may anger North Korea and complicate efforts to resolve the international standoff.
Instead, it has sent observers to drills and attended briefings.