Friday, January 19, 2007

SEOUL — The top U.S. nuclear envoy expressed optimism yesterday that progress could be made when wider arms negotiations with North Korea reconvene, but the White House denied an “agreement” had been reached.

“I think it’s premature to say there is an agreement — premature to say the least,” deputy White House press secretary Dana Perino said.

North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said three days of talks in Berlin between U.S. envoy Christopher Hill and North Korea’s main nuclear negotiator, Kim Gye-gwan, had been held “in a positive and sincere atmosphere and a certain agreement was reached there.” No further details were given.

Mr. Hill, in Seoul on the first stop of a three-nation swing through Asia, said the talks laid the foundation for progress when six-nation nuclear negotiations resume. He also said that he had agreed with his North Korean counterpart “on a number of issues.” He declined to elaborate.

“I am pretty convinced that we have the basis for a good session of the six-party talks,” Mr. Hill told reporters in Seoul after meeting South Korean Foreign Minister Song Min-soon and nuclear envoy Chun Yung-woo.

The Washington Times reported yesterday that Mr. Hill and Mr. Kim discussed a U.S. proposal that would begin with North Korea suspending its nuclear program and allowing U.N. inspectors into the country.

It was unclear what the United States or other nations involved in talks would offer to North Korea in return.

The last round of six-nation talks in Beijing in December — two months after the North conducted its first nuclear test — ended without any breakthroughs.

The negotiating countries — South Korea, the U.S., Japan, China and Russia — had been seeking to outline how to implement a September 2005 agreement in which the North pledged to disarm in exchange for aid and security guarantees.

But North Korea refused to discuss its arms program and again demanded the U.S. lift its blacklisting of a Macao bank.

The United States had accused the bank of being complicit in the communist country’s purported counterfeiting and money laundering, leading to a bank freeze of North Korean assets worth about $24 million.

A South Korean news report said the six-nation nuclear talks could resume early next month because of progress made at the Germany meetings. Yonhap news agency, citing an unnamed diplomat in Seoul, said Thursday there is a high possibility the talks would resume in Beijing the week of Feb. 5.

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