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U.S., N. Korea open nuke talks

Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly heads the U.S. delegation.
Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly heads the U.S. delegation.

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Optimism is waning among some South Koreans as talks on the future of North Korea's nuclear program are set to begin. CNN's Sohn Jie-Ae reports
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BEIJING, China (CNN) -- U.S. and North Korean officials have begun three days of talks in Beijing to discuss Pyongyang's alleged nuclear weapons program.

The talks are the first between the two countries since Washington accused North Korea of having a nuclear weapons program six months ago.

The U.S. hopes the talks will persuade Pyongyang to abandon its efforts to build nuclear weapons, but there are concerns the North Korean's negotiator may not have the authority to approve a deal.

China is hosting the talks and participating in them -- the first time the three countries have held talks since they hammered out an armistice ending the Korean War almost 50 years ago to the day.

The U.S. delegation is led by the same official who confronted Pyongyang about its nuclear program last October -- Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs James Kelly.

The North Korean delegation is headed by Deputy Director General Li Gun from the American Affairs Bureau of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Kelly is expected to deliver a tough message to the North Koreans, telling them they must end production of nuclear weapons and establish an intrusive inspections regime.

North Korea is thought to be sticking to it demands for security guarantees from the United States, saying that without any such safeguards it needs a powerful deterrent to stave off the threat of attack.

U.S. officials say they do not expect a breakthrough during the talks, but one senior official said there is "reason for a little bit of optimism" because China, the country with the most leverage over North Korea, will be involved.

Overall however, most expect the meeting to focus on exploratory issues with the most likely outcome being an agreement to meet again.

"The purpose of these talks is to get started," U.S. State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher said Tuesday.

The U.S. aim, he said, was "to lay out the need for verifiable and irreversible end to North Korea's nuclear program."

China meanwhile, in its role as talks broker, is hoping the meeting will ease months of tensions between the two sides.

In a reflection of those tensions, a day ahead of the talks opening the commander of U.S. forces in South Korea described Pyongyang as a threat to global stability.

"Today, the current military demarcation line between North and South Korea is the most heavily armed in the world and it remains an arena for potential confrontation," General Leon LaPorte told a forum hosted by the conservative Korea Freedom League in Seoul.

LaPorte, who commands some 37,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, said North Korea's leadership saw the military as its only source of world influence.

"Adding to the increased tensions is the fact that North Korea has not shown 'sincere attempts' to address these threats to peace with the international community," he said.

Japan and South Korea are not participating, but are expected to join in future talks.

South Korean Foreign Minister Young Kwan Yoon told CNN's Sohn Jie-Ae his country would have liked to attend, but the overriding goal was to reduce tension on the peninsula and avoid a military confrontation with North Korea.

"Sooner or later we expect that our government will be joining these talks. It is better for us to, in some sense, avoid the risk of losing the important opportunity to get these talks started," Young said.

"We made it clear that our government will not tolerate North Korea's nuclear position," he added.

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