BEIJING – Six nations trying to defuse a standoff over North Korea's nuclear program achieved their modest goal Friday — an agreement to keep talking — but predicted obstacles ahead as the communist regime laid out its terms for a deal with the United States.
North Korea's chief delegate, Vice Foreign Minister Kim Yong Il (search), suggested his country was willing to abandon a nuclear weapons program in exchange for economic aid and a treaty with the United States.
"It is not our goal to have nuclear weapons," Pyongyang's state-run news agency, KCNA, quoted Kim as saying. The three-day talks ended Friday.
Kim said North Korea could allow inspections of its nuclear facilities, stop its missile exports and tests and, finally, dismantle its nuclear program. But that would only be if the United States resumed free oil shipments, provided economic and humanitarian aid, signed a nonaggression treaty and opened diplomatic ties.
Brinkmanship and bluster have characterized North Korea's diplomacy in recent years, but they often veil its willingness to compromise.
In Washington, State Department press officer Jo-Anne Prokopowicz, in the first official U.S. response since the talks began, said the North Korean statement "is an explicit acknowledgment that the DPRK has nuclear weapons but the U.S. will not respond to threats or give in to blackmail," using the abbreviation for the country's full name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
But she added that "we are pleased that at the meeting a consensus developed that the multilateral process can advance us toward the goal of a peaceful resolution of the North Korean nuclear problem."
The consensus, after months of saber-rattling, saved diplomatic embarrassment for the other participants in the talks: host China, South Korea, Japan and Russia, all of which have vital stakes in resolving the region's most urgent security threat.
Even as they claimed success, a dispute between American and North Korean envoys, which mirrored the problems they have had since the standoff began in October, illustrated how difficult a path to detente would be.
The head of the U.N. nuclear agency accused North Korea of risky posturing.
"It is pretty dangerous," Mohamed ElBaradei (search), director-general of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (search), told the British Broadcasting Corp. Friday. "The fact that they are using it to intimidate, to blackmail. I think it sends a very bad signal."
Nonetheless, ElBaradei said diplomats must be patient in trying to persuade North Korea to halt any nuclear weapons program. "It will take time, but I think the only way to resolve it is through dialogue," he said, adding, "We would like to work with them."
North Korea, which wants a nonaggression treaty, said it would prove to the world it possesses nuclear weapons by testing a nuclear device, according to a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity. The U.S. envoy to the talks, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, called such a treaty "neither appropriate nor necessary," according to KCNA.
Prokopowicz acknowledged Friday that North Korea issued "threats" but she refused to be specific.
"The North's threats are not a surprise. ... These threats only serve to further isolate North Korea from the international community," she said.
The United States has insisted on "the complete, verifiable and irreversible elimination" of North Korea's nuclear program before it can seriously consider improving relations with North Korea.
There were "sometimes sharply divided views" at the talks, said Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Russia's top delegate, Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov (search), said the positions of the United States and North Korea showed "no basic changes."
"I believe these issues can be resolved," Wang said at a news conference, issuing a statement on behalf of all six participating nations. "What is important is to maintain this momentum of dialogue that has not come easily."
No date was immediately set for another round of six-country talks, which probably would take place in Beijing as well.
After the meetings in Beijing ended, Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) called the foreign ministers of Japan, South Korea, China and Russia.
Even before the negotiations began, participating nations said they had modest expectations and advocated the continuation of contact above all else. Before this week, the United States and North Korea had not talked formally for four months.
"It's just the beginning of a difficult process," said Deputy Foreign Minister Lee Soo-hyuck, South Korea's head delegate. "The six nations are satisfied that they have agreed to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula peacefully and to continue to talk based on this common understanding."
The six countries also agreed they want to address North Korea's security concerns as well, and that they would not "escalate the situation" as long as dialogue continued, the statement issued by Wang said.
The North accused Washington of putting "the prospect of the next talks at peril." Diplomats said they needed more talks to decide where and when the next talks will take place.
Wang, the Chinese diplomat, said U.S. officials reconfirmed that they had no intention to do in North Korea what they did earlier this year in Iraq, another member of President Bush's so-called "axis of evil."
"The U.S. said that the U.S. had no intention to threaten North Korea, no intention to invade and attack North Korea, no intention to work for regime change in North Korea," Wang said.
The United States has a long-standing policy, however, of not removing any option from the table.
According to a U.S. government official who spoke on condition of anonymity, North Korea's envoy said at the talks Thursday that his country has the means to deliver nuclear weapons. He also said the North would prove it had nuclear devices by testing them.
U.S. officials say that North Korea privately confirmed in April during talks in Beijing that it possessed nuclear weapons. But Kim's statement Thursday is believed to be its first such acknowledgment in a formal setting — in front of representatives from China, South Korea, Japan and Russia.
Losyukov cast doubt on that account. "The claims are not true," he said, according to the Russian news agency Interfax.
All the governments represented in Beijing had expressed varying degrees of opposition to the North's nuclear programs. China, a longtime political ally of North Korea, has also said repeatedly that it wants a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.
"Of course there were differences in views," said Mitoji Yabunaka, head of the Japanese delegation. "What's important from now is how we overcome these differences."