(Reuters) - A U.S. envoy said on Monday China could announce a date soon for a resumption of six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear programme and he saw a basis for progress.
China hosts the talks, grouping the two Koreas, the United States, Japan and Russia, which began in 2003 with the aim of persuading Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear arms ambitions. The last session in December broke up inconclusively, reports Trend.
"We hope that the Chinese government will be able to announce soon the start-up of the talks," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill told reporters before returning to Washington, adding that Beijing would have to consult other participating countries before setting a date.
The urgency of making headway in the talks has grown since reclusive, communist North Korea defied international warnings last October and conducted its first nuclear test, triggering U.N. sanctions.
The December session appeared at first to be making progress on how to implement a September 2005 statement promising impoverished North Korea economic and political assurances in return for nuclear disarmament.
But those prospects unraveled, with Hill blaming Pyongyang's negotiators' insistent focus on U.S. financial restrictions and their lack of authority to negotiate on the nuclear deal.
Hill suggested on Monday those roadblocks would be cleared at upcoming talks after he and North Korean envoy Kim Kye-gwan held three days of bilateral talks in Berlin last week.
"Based on all the consultations we've had in the last week or so, I think we have a basis for getting together as soon as possible in the six-party process and making progress," he told reporters after meeting Wu Dawei, China's chief negotiator. He cautioned, though, that there was no certainty of a breakthrough.
South Korean envoy Chun Yung-woo, who arrived in Beijing on Monday, said he did not rule out a meeting with Kim who also arrived on Monday.
"So far, I have no plans. But since we are in the same place at the same time, if we feel it is necessary we can think about it," he told reporters.
A South Korean newspaper reported on Monday that North Korea had offered at the Berlin talks to freeze activity at its nuclear reactor and allow international nuclear inspectors back into the country in return for energy aid.
But North Korea also demanded greater U.S. flexibility on the financial crackdown as part of initial steps toward ending its arms programme, the Chosun Ilbo said, quoting diplomatic sources in Seoul and Beijing.
Hill said that Beijing's test this month of an anti-satellite missile that blew apart a Chinese satellite, prompting alarm in Washington, would not interfere with the six-party talks.
Financial negotiators from Washington and Pyongyang are to meet soon for a fresh round of two-way talks on the U.S. financial restrictions, which were imposed after Washington determined that North Korea had been counterfeiting U.S. money and using a Macau bank as a channel for illicit earnings.
Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso said on Sunday that the earliest possible date for reopening the talks was early February, Kyodo news agency reported.
Kim held talks in Moscow on Sunday with Russia's chief negotiator, Alexander Losyukov, on prospects of resolving the dispute, the Russian Foreign Ministry said.