TOKYO – North Korea's (search) neighbors reacted with cautious optimism Friday to news that the isolated communist country has apparently accepted a U.S. proposal for six-nation talks on ending a standoff over its nuclear weapons programs.
Overnight in Washington, U.S. officials said they received word that North Korea would discuss the issue with the United States, China (search), South Korea, Japan and Russia. South Korea acknowledged Friday that it was informed of the North's decision, while the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Beijing (search) said it had seen the report but had no immediate comment.
Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (search) said it was positive step, while Japan's Foreign Minister, Yoriko Kawaguchi, called it "extremely encouraging."
"Perhaps North Korea is beginning to ease a little bit," Koizumi said. "We should promote multilateral talks and let North Korea hear the voices of the international community."
North Korea was silent on the matter.
Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda said Washington told Tokyo overnight that the talks would likely be held in Beijing, but the timing was undecided.
Indonesia, a country with close political and economic ties with both Koreas, applauded news.
"We have an obvious interest in seeing this issue resolved," Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman Marty Nalalegawa said.
North Korea rattled the region last October by confirming U.S. suspicions that it was developing uranium-based nuclear weapons.
South Korean Foreign Ministry official Lee Soo-hyuk said Seoul was informed Thursday by North Korea at the same it told the United States, Japan, China and Russia.
"It was a brief notification and there were no significant conditions or obstacles attached," Lee told reporters.
The country has since withdrawn from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, restarted a plutonium-producing nuclear reactor and told U.S. officials it had reprocessed 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods. U.S. officials have not been able to confirm that claim.
North Korea has demanded one-on-one discussions with the United States, saying the nuclear issue is between it and Washington. The United States has pushed for multilateral talks, saying the issue is a regional one.
In April, officials from the United States, North Korea and China met in Beijing to review the situation. Since then, the Bush administration has insisted that Japan and South Korea be allowed to take part in a second round, and said that Russia would be a welcome participant.
U.S. officials said Thursday that North Korea apparently felt more comfortable with a six-way discussion that includes Russia rather than a five-way arrangement without Moscow.
Russia and China are seen as traditionally sympathetic to North Korea from their ties as communist counterparts during the Cold War. Relations have been strained in recent years, but the two countries are still seen as exercising special influence on Pyongyang.
Political analysts in northeast Asia, however, were cautious about the North's commitment.
"It's hard to say that North Korea wants six-way talks," said Park June-young, a North Korea expert at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
"North Korea is probably saying it's better to have six-way rather than five-way talks if it can't have one-on-one talks with the United States," he said.
Russia's Foreign Ministry said Thursday that North Korea's ambassador to Moscow, Pak Ui Chun, told Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Yuri Fedotov that Pyongyang supported the six-sided talks.
Beijing, the North's last major ally, has repeatedly said it doesn't want nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula, and wants the issue resolved peacefully.