Possible thaw in nuke talks with N. Korea

(www.latwp.com) - North Korea appears increasingly willing to bargain over the terms of ending its nuclear programs, providing cautious optimism that some sort of agreement may be reached when six-nation disarmament talks reconvene next week in Beijing, according to U.S. and Asian officials close to the talks.

With just two years left in President Bush's term, State Department officials appear to have been given new freedom to explore different outcomes and proposals with their North Korean counterparts, most recently during unusual bilateral talks that were held in Berlin, reports Trend.

North Korean officials have responded in kind, for the first time moving beyond quibbles about the wording in communiques and actually talking specifically about what they may do to end their nuclear programs, the officials said.

Officials cautioned that intensive bargaining will be necessary for any deal in a process that has generally yielded little but disappointment, most recently during a round of talks in December. In September 2005, North Korea agreed to a joint communique in which it said it would abandon its nuclear programs in exchange for economic and security incentives. But then it boycotted the talks for 13 months in anger over a Treasury Department action against a Macao bank allegedly acting as a conduit for North Korean counterfeiting.

North Korea tested a nuclear weapon in October, which put it at odds with its long-time ally China. But other nations at the talks _such as Russia _ recently put pressure on the United States to end the financial crackdown against Banca Delta Asia. The participants in the talks also include China, South Korea and Japan.

Sources close to the talks who spoke on condition of anonymity said the United States, backed by China, is seeking some sort of disablement of the North Korean nuclear facility at Yongbyon, but North Korea has thus far proposed only to allow the return of

inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency. North Korea in the past four years has obtained enough plutonium for an estimated ten nuclear weapons from spent fuel rods at the facility, and Pyongyang might also consider freezing the facility. But that would be problematic for the Bush administration because that would result in a deal similar to one obtained by former President Bill Clinton _ which Bush has said was a bad bargain.

Any agreement is likely to include some sort of resolution of the Banca Delta Asia issue. North Korea officials have demanded that $23 million in frozen North Korean accounts be returned, but U.S. officials only have indicated a willingness to discuss returning some funds that have no clear connection to illicit activity.

Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the chief U.S. negotiator, declined to discuss specifics or predict success Tuesday.

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