SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea affirmed Wednesday it would return to nuclear disarmament talks to seek a resolution of a U.S. campaign aimed at choking the communist nation's access to foreign banks.
Stepping back from further provocative moves after conducting its first-ever nuclear test three weeks ago, the North said it hoped to see a resolution of the financial issue at the resumed six-nation arms talks that it has boycotted for a year.
It emphasized that a direct meeting with the U.S. during previously unpublicized negotiations Tuesday in Beijing had made the diplomatic breakthrough possible.
North Korea has refused since November 2005 to return to the arms talks in anger over the U.S. financial restrictions, which blacklisted a Macau bank where the regime held accounts for its alleged complicity in counterfeiting and money laundering. U.S. officials had sought to rally other countries to prevent the North from doing business abroad, saying all transactions involving Pyongyang were suspect.
On Wednesday, the North's Foreign Ministry said Pyongyang "decided to return to the six-party talks on the premise that the issue of lifting financial sanctions will be discussed and settled between the (North) and the U.S. within the framework of the six-party talks."
The talks — which include China, Japan, Russia, the United States and the two Koreas — reached an agreement in September 2005 where the North pledged to abandon its nuclear program in exchange for aid and security guarantees. But the last meeting a month later failed to make any progress on implementing the accord, and then the North refused to attend over the financial issue.
The U.S. had previously maintained that the financial issue was a matter of law enforcement separate from the nuclear talks. But in Beijing on Tuesday, the chief U.S. nuclear envoy, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, said Washington agreed to take up the matter in the revived arms negotiations.
However, there were conflicting signals from the U.S. White House press secretary Tony Snow later insisted the United States made no promises to link the financial dispute to the nuclear one, but only agreed that "issues like that may be discussable at some future time."
North Korea had also long sought a direct meeting with the U.S., which it had Tuesday in Beijing amid other sessions also involving China.
The North emphasized Wednesday in the statement carried by its official Korean Central News Agency that the breakthrough on returning to the nuclear talks was made possible by a bilateral meeting with the U.S.
The North's Foreign Ministry also alluded to its Oct. 9 nuclear test, noting that the country "recently took a self-defensive countermeasure against the U.S. daily increasing nuclear threat and financial sanctions against it."
The U.S. envoy Hill said Tuesday that the nuclear talks could resume as easy as November or December, but acknowledged the negotiations still had a long way to go.
U.S. President George W. Bush cautiously welcomed Tuesday's deal and thanked the Chinese for brokering it. But he said the agreement would not sidetrack U.S. efforts to enforce sanctions adopted by the U.N. Security Council to punish Pyongyang for its Oct. 9 nuclear test.
He told reporters in Washington there was still "a lot of work to do" and that the U.S. would send teams to the region "to make sure that the current United Nations Security Council resolution is enforced."
The ultimate goal is "a North Korea that abandons her nuclear weapons programs and her nuclear weapons in a verifiable fashion in return for a better way forward for her people," Bush said.