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U.S., N. Korea agree to nuclear talks

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, right, had been demanding direct talks with U.S. officials.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, right, had been demanding direct talks with U.S. officials.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The United States and North Korea will meet face to face for the first time in over six months, holding multilateral talks in Beijing next week, according to an Bush administration official.

The talks represent the first concrete steps toward resolving the long-standing nuclear dispute between Washington and Pyongyang over its suspected nuclear weapons program.

The United States had refused talks that excluded other countries in the region, refusing to give into North Korea's "nuclear blackmail."

The announcement comes after North Korea backtracked on its calls for direct talks with the United States, signaling only now that it's willing to go ahead with U.S. demands for multilateral negotiations.

An administration official said other nations would be brought into the talks as negotiations progressed.

"We've succeeded in efforts to establish a multilateral framework for talks. China will host and fully participate.

"In order to have a full and lasting resolution of a North Korean nuclear program, it will require an early inclusion of other countries," said the official, citing South Korea, Japan and Russia.

But another senior administration official told CNN that next week's talks -- with only China joining the United States and North Korea -- will be about as close to bilateral talks as can be and are being viewed in Washington as a "preliminary effort to get into some serious give and take."

"We're not looking for big results," said the official, who added that in order to offer North Korea the security guarantees, stability and economic assurances it wants, the negotiations will have to include Japan and South Korea.

"It's a big leap to go from next week to making decisions," he said.

Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly will represent the United States in the talks, set to take place April 23-25. It is not known who will represent North Korea or China.

Last October, the United States alleged North Korean officials had admitted they were secretly pursuing a nuclear weapons program. North Korea denied the allegation.

Since that accusation, North Korea has restarted several mothballed nuclear facilities, kicked out U.N. nuclear inspectors and warned of an impending war on the Korean Peninsula unless Washington held face-to-face talks.

Talks offer new hope

The apparent about-face from Kim Jong Il's government sparked hope in Washington and South Korea of establishing a forum for resolving tensions over the issue.

U.S. officials said the Beijing initiative was put forward by Secretary of State Colin Powell during his trip to Asia last month where he attended the inauguration of South Korea's President Roh Moo-Hyun and visited Beijing for talks with Chinese leaders.

Powell recommended that China push Pyongyang to accept multilateral talks with as many as five or six other parties.

When an unidentified senior Chinese official traveled to North Korea to make the pitch, U.S. officials said, leaders there refused. Beijing then suggested the three-way meeting which Pyongyang accepted.

Pressure from China on North Korea, including three days when oil shipments to the impoverished nation were stopped, sent a strong message to Pyongyang that it should settle its dispute with Washington, U.S. officials said.

Powell told reporters Tuesday: "There has been some overall improvement, I think, in the prospects for dialogue with North Korea.

"The North Koreans indicated ... that [the] forum was not as important as a dialogue beginning and so we are following up on that statement in diplomatic channels."

South Korean Foreign Minister Yoon Young-kwan said although his country would not be involved, his government supported the forum "because it is of paramount importance that talks begin."

CNN's Dana Bash and Andrea Koppel contributed to this report.

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