BEIJING – North Korea said Saturday it will abandon its yearlong boycott of nuclear disarmament talks and resume negotiations this month with the U.S. and four other nations, a breakthrough reached just as U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice began a mission to end the impasse.
North Korea’s vice foreign minister, Kim Gye Gwan, informed U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill that the North is prepared to return to the talks during the week of July 25.
Word of the decision came as Rice arrived in Beijing, the first stop on a four-country Asian tour devoted primarily to the North Korea situation.
For weeks, the U.S. has urged North Korea to get back to the bargaining table and take the discussions seriously.
A Bush administration official who spoke with reporters accompanying Rice said Kim told Hill that North Korea’s purpose in the talks will be denuclearization and that its negotiators will be intent on making progress.
In Washington, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said, “We are pleased that North Korea is coming back to the talks with a commitment to a denuclearized peninsula. We look forward to making progress in the six-party talks toward that goal.”
The other countries involved are China, Japan, Russia and South Korea. A spokesman for Russia’s foreign ministry said the development was welcome news.
Three rounds of largely fruitless talks took place in 2003 and 2004.
North Korea blamed “hostile policies” of the United States, including statements by U.S. officials that they considered inflammatory and disrespectful. Rice, for example, branded North Korea an “outpost of tyranny” during her confirmation hearings in January to be the chief U.S. diplomat.
President Bush and Rice have dropped such rhetoric lately, in an apparent bid to encourage North Korea to be flexible.
North Korea was a priority for Rice heading into meetings Sunday with Chinese President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao and Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing.
Rice met with Li on this morning and thanked China for its help in arranging for new round of six-party talks. She called this “a first step” but said the “real issue” is whether progress can be made.
Li said the parties should “continue to work together toward our shared goal” of a Korean Pensula free of nuclear weapons.
In recent weeks, there have been signs that North Korea was interested in ending the boycott. Five weeks ago, North Korean diplomats at the United Nations expressed such a desire during a meeting with two U.S. State Department officials.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il also held out the possibility of a resumption during talks last month with South Korean Unification Minister Chung Dong-young.
The U.S. recently announced a 50,000-ton food donation for North Korea. The timing of the announcement was seen as a gesture toward North Korea. The Bush administration said it was a humanitarian donation and denied that it was related to nuclear diplomacy.
For years, the U.S. government has believed that North Korea possesses at least two nuclear weapons.
North Korea readily acknowledges that it has a plutonium-based nuclear weapons capability. It confirmed to U.S. officials three years ago that it also has a uranium-based program but it has since retracted those statements.