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U.S.: N Korea nuke talks on track

From CNN White House Correspondent Chris Burns

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has been demanding a nonagression pact with the United States.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has been demanding a nonagression pact with the United States.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- An agreement in principle has been reached for a new round of talks with North Korea aimed at shutting down its nuclear weapons program, a senior Bush administration official has said.

In an "encouraging sign," the U.S. has heard through third-country contacts, including Russia, that the North Koreans have agreed to the U.S. demand that the talks be multilateral, not bilateral as Pyongyang had long insisted, the official said.

Earlier Thursday the Russian Foreign Ministry said North Korean had confirmed to them it was willing to take part in six-party negotiations.

"The details -- the date, place and modalities -- need to be worked out," the official said on condition of anonymity.

Asked if that meant the North Koreans had agreed in principle to the first round of talks since April, the official said, "yes."

U.S. officials and Asian diplomats previously indicated that a second round of talks would likely happen in late August or early September in Beijing. But they noted that could change.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said Pyongyang's move came during discussions -- requested by North Korea -- between Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Yuri Fedotov and the North Korean ambassador to Moscow, Pak Ui Chun.

Washington has been pushing for multilateral talks to include South Korea, Japan, China and Russia, to ensure the strength of any future agreement. (Japanese reaction)

Nonagression pact

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il said he wanted talks with only the United States, and has demanded economic aid for his starving country, as well as a nonaggression pact with the United States, in exchange for shutting down its nuclear weapons program.

The Bush administration has been reluctant to put any nonaggression guarantee in writing.

Pyongyang has said it is reprocessing spent nuclear fuel rods into weapons-grade plutonium, enough to build several nuclear bombs. Washington has said it believes North Korea may have already built one or two nuclear weapons.

A satellite image of a suspected North Korean nuclear facility
A satellite image of a suspected North Korean nuclear facility

In April, China hosted United States and North Korean an unsuccessful round of three-party talks aimed at persuading the world's most isolated country to give up its nuclear weapons program.

Since that round ended, China has been pressuring North Korea to agree to another round.

In recent days Chinese officials had signaled progress, said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, and had told the United States that the North Koreans had been making "positive noises" about the prospects for multilateral talks.

One senior Asian diplomat said North Korea might have agreed to multilateral talks for several reasons:

• North Korean officials want a deal -- provided they can "save face";

• North Korea wants to placate China, a close ally that supplies Pyongyang with most of its energy, and would "mollify" China by going to such a meeting;

• North Korea may be playing for more time as it continues to work on its alleged secret nuclear weapons program.

In recent weeks a North Korean representative to the United Nations told a U.S. official in New York that Pyongyang had finished reprocessing 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods, said the diplomat.

But, the official said, most observers believe that the most North Korea could have reprocessed so far would be "less than half" of that amount.

Experts have maintained that North Korea had enough spent plutonium to produce five or six nuclear weapons, once it had been reprocessed.

After North Korea agreed to freeze its nuclear program at Yongbyon in 1994, U.S. intelligence said it believed North Korea had enough plutonium to produce one or two nuclear weapons.

-- CNN Moscow Bureau Chief Jill Dougherty, CNN State Department Correspondent Andrea Koppel and CNN White House Correspondent Dana Bash contributed to this report.

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