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U.S. rejects North Korean demand for direct talks

White House contends six-party negotiations must be resumed

An earlier version of this article included an image that was incorrectly identified as an aerial photograph of North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear plant. The photo was actually a commercial satellite photo of a nuclear facility near Natanz, Iran.
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The United States reaffirmed its opposition to two-way talks with North Korea on its nuclear weapons program after the communist state on Friday again demanded bilateral discussions.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said North Korea would have plenty of opportunities to raise issues directly with the United States if it agreed to resume six-party talks. Those have been on hold since Pyongyang withdrew last year.

North Korea stunned the world Thursday when it publicly admitted to having nuclear weapons and announced it was withdrawing from the multilateral negotiations.

The Bush administration consistently has opposed two-party talks, while North Korea has insisted on a bilateral nonaggression pact with the United States before it will consider dismantling its nuclear program.

As a result of direct talks, North Korea and the United States signed a 1994 agreement in which Pyongyang pledged to freeze and eventually dismantle its nuclear weapons program in exchange for international aid to build two power-producing nuclear reactors.

But the White House has said North Korea's neighbors -- with a greater stake in the negotiations -- also must sign a new agreement.

"It's a regional issue," McCellan said, not an issue between North Korea and the United States.

South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon is in Washington for consultations with U.S. officials, including a Friday meeting with Vice President Dick Cheney.

The foreign minister -- whose visit was scheduled before North Korea's declaration -- has additional meetings next week with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and national security adviser Stephen Hadley.

A senior U.S. official said there were ongoing consultations with China as well. Rice is scheduled to talk to the Chinese foreign minister Friday.

The White House views Beijing as a key partner in negotiation efforts because China previously has helped get North Korea back to the bargaining table.

In an interview Friday, Han Sung Ryol, North Korea's envoy to the United Nations, told a South Korean newspaper that Pyongyang will consider multilateral negotiations only after bilateral talks with the United States.

"We will return to the six-nation talks when we see a reason to do so and the conditions are ripe," Han told Seoul's Hankyoreh newspaper.

Han was the first North Korean official to speak to outside news media since Pyongyang's Foreign Ministry declared Thursday that the country has nuclear weapons as a deterrent against a U.S. invasion and does not intend to rejoin six-nation disarmament talks any time soon.

International leaders quickly condemned the announcement and urged Pyongyang to return to multilateral negotiations.

In the six-party talks since 2003, the United States, the two Koreas, China, Japan and Russia have held three rounds of talks aimed at persuading North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons development in return for economic and diplomatic rewards. But no significant progress was reported in those talks, which China hosted.

A fourth round of talks did not take place in September when North Korea refused to attend, citing what it called a "hostile" U.S. policy.

"We have wanted the six-party talks, but we are compelled to suspend our participation in the talks for an indefinite period till we have recognized that there is justification for us to attend the talks and there are ample conditions and atmosphere to expect positive results from the talks," the North Korean Foreign Ministry said.

"The U.S. disclosed its attempt to topple the political system in the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] at any cost, threatening it with a nuclear stick. This compels us to take a measure to bolster its nuclear weapons arsenal in order to protect the ideology, system, freedom and democracy chosen by the people in the DPRK."

President Bush did not mention North Korea by name in last month's inaugural address and only briefly touched on the country in his February 2 State of the Union speech, saying Washington was "working closely with governments in Asia to convince North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions."

Bush's tone was in stark contrast to his 2002 State of the Union address, when he branded North Korea part of an "axis of evil" with Iran and Iraq.

This year's more restrained approach raised hopes for a positive response from North Korea. Bush and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun agreed to push for an early resumption of the six-nation talks.

But in a statement Thursday via the state-run news agency KCNA, the North Korean Foreign Ministry said, "We have shown utmost magnanimity and patience for the past four years since the first Bush administration swore in."

Pyongyang also lashed out at Bush's inaugural speech in which he emphasized the effort to spread freedom, calling it an "untamed fire" that "will reach the darkest corners of our world."

North Korea called the effort a diabolical U.S. scheme to turn the world into "a sea of war flames."

CNN's John King contributed to this report.

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