SEOUL, South Korea – The United States achieved a key diplomatic goal when North Korea (search) eased its insistence on one-on-one talks with Washington and agreed Friday to join U.S.-proposed multilateral talks, where it will find little sympathy for its suspected nuclear weapons programs.
North Korea attached a condition that private meetings between U.S. and North Korean officials be held during the proposed six-nation talks. That indicates the isolated country may try to elicit U.S. concessions, while stalling talks involving the other countries.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher (search) acknowledged that one-on-one talks between the United States and North Korea were possible as part of the six-way talks.
The impoverished nation wants a nonaggression treaty with the United States and has in the past sought to leverage aid from Washington. U.S. officials have ruled out a nonaggression treaty, but said they could consider less formal security guarantees for the isolated state once multilateral talks begin.
Still, North Korea has insisted for months on bilateral talks with Washington and its willingness to accept the American proposal of a broader discussion involving the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia was seen as a concession.
North Korea has insisted the nuclear issue is essentially a bilateral matter with the United States, while Washington considers it a regional concern.
U.S. officials believe North Korea already may possess one or two nuclear bombs and has plans to build more.
The current nuclear standoff began in October when North Korea acknowledged to U.S. officials it had a uranium-based nuclear weapons program. North Korea has withdrawn from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (search), restarted a plutonium-producing nuclear reactor and told U.S. officials it had reprocessed 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods.
The last procedure, experts say, could yield enough plutonium to make several nuclear bombs within months. U.S. officials have not been able to confirm that claim.
Undersecretary of State John Bolton (search), on a trip to Japan, said Friday Washington's goal remains the "complete, verifiable and irreversible" dismantling of the communist regime's nuclear programs.
President Bush welcomed North Korea's agreement to multilateral talks.
"In the past, it was the lone voice of the United States speaking clearly about this. Now we'll have other parties who have got a vested interest in peace on the Korean Peninsula," Bush told reporters in Washington Friday.
A North Korean spokesman said Pyongyang (search) agreed to multilateral talks after Washington told North Korea the two sides could meet separately during those discussions.
North Korea's U.N. delegation summoned Jack Pritchard, a U.S. State Department Korea expert, to New York on Thursday to inform him of Pyongyang's acceptance of the six-country approach. U.S. officials said.
North Korea's neighbors reacted with cautious optimism.
"Perhaps North Korea is beginning to ease a little bit," Japanese Prime Minister Janitor Koizumi said. "We should promote multilateral talks and let North Korea hear the voices of the international community."
South Korea said it was informed of the North's decision.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry in Beijing said it was receptive to the idea of having more nations join in the talks.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan welcomed the "good prospect of early talks" involving the six nations — a format he said should enable participants "to address multilateral and bilateral issues of concern to them."
He commended "efforts by the government of China, as well as other countries, in overcoming the current impasse," U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said in New York.