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US, N. Korea bilateral contact lasts one hour
Updated: 2004-02-26 10:35

North Korea and the United States held ice-breaking talks in the hope of resolving a 16-month standoff over Pyongyang's nuclear program.

In opening remarks on the first day of the talks in Beijing, the two sides showed few signs of backing down from their respective hard-line positions.

But they agreed to have "bilateral contact" to discuss the way forward, South Korea's chief delegate Lee Soo-Hyuck told reporters, adding that Seoul had tabled a three-stage proposal to settle the impasse.

The government in Pyongyang has long pushed for one-on-one talks but Washington has always insisted that contact must be in a multilateral setting. The two sides held what was termed an "informal chat" lasting 30 minutes during the first round of inconclusive six-party talks in Beijing last August, although Washington later downplayed the significance of the encounter.

China confirmed the meeting between North Korean and US officials. South Korean foreign ministry spokesman Shin Bong-kil said the two sides had met behind closed doors for an hour but declined to comment on the talks.

"We are not supposed to comment on the contents of the discussions," he said.
The meeting was the longest and highest-level bilateral encounter between the two countries since the row over North Korea's nuclear program erupted in October 2002.

While North Korea's chief delegate, Deputy Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan, said he was prepared to be flexible and hoped for a positive outcome, he insisted his party would be sticking to its "principles".

"Thanks to the seriousness of the efforts of all the delegates here, we look forward to a positive outcome of this current session," he said in opening remarks to the summit.

US envoy James Kelly was equally adamant in his address, reiterating the call for North Korea to dismantle completely its plutonium and uranium-based nuclear programs.

"As President George W. Bush has stated, the US is for the complete eradication of plutonium and uranium-based weapons," said Kelly, while assuring the North that Washington had no plans to invade.

Washington backed up its position with a statement issued by the US embassy in Beijing making clear there would be no rewards without Pyongyang meeting its international obligations on nuclear weapons.

Washington has long insisted on agreement from North Korea for a complete, irreversible and verifiable dismantling of its weapons programs before it offers the economic and energy aid and the security guarantees.

In an angry diatribe on Tuesday, North Korea again denied it had a uranium-based program in violation of a 1994 nuclear freeze accord -- the US claim that sparked the crisis.

It also ruled out freezing its plutonium-based nuclear programs, which it had first offered to do in December, until the issue of compensation was resolved.

Delegate Kim repeated that position on Wednesday, according to South Korean and Japanese officials, who described the atmosphere as "cool and businesslike".

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said the uranium issue had been raised but refused to go into details.


A way out of the stalemate has been proposed by South Korea, which tabled a three-point plan it hopes will draw to a close an initial phase of the standoff that also involves China, Japan and Russia.

It is the only plan of action on the table, South Korea's Lee said.

In the first phase, North Korea is to declare it intends to abandon all nuclear weapons programs, while the other participants will promise to provide a security guarantee, he said.

Stage two would see North Korea dismantle its nuclear facilities while relevant countries take corresponding measures. Lee did not elaborate.

In the third phase, all countries will work to "comprehensively improve relations".

US delegation head Kelly refused to comment on progress in the talks as he returned to his hotel late on Wednesday, telling reporters simply: "It's been a long day."

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