- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 31, 2006

12:54 p.m.

BEIJING — The U.S. and Chinese governments announced today that North Korea has agreed to rejoin six-nation nuclear disarmament talks, a surprise diplomatic breakthrough that comes just 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,” Mr. 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 the United States, 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.

President Bush welcomed the agreement.

“I am pleased, and I want to thank the Chinese,” the president told reporters in the Oval Office after meeting with Andrew Natsios, his special envoy on Sudan.

But he said the agreement would not halt U.S. efforts to enforce a 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 United States would enter the new round of talks insisting they start with a September 2005 agreement forged among 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 that the Bush administration says Pyongyang violated.

The latest round of negotiations also included Japan, Russia and South Korea, which participated in three on-again, off-again sessions. The negotiations stalled after the U.S. imposed financial sanctions over suspected counterfeiting and money-laundering activities by Pyongyang, and North Korea withdrew in November 2005.

Both the United States and North Korea showed flexibility at today’s meeting, Mr. 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, Mr. Hill said.

At the talks, Pyongyang’s negotiator, Kim Gye Gwan, “made the point” that North Korea considered itself a nuclear power, Mr. Hill said. “I made it very clear that the United States does not accept the DPRK as a nuclear power, and neither does China.”

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