July 1, 2005

Optimism raised on North Korea talks, no date fixed

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Informal discussions on the NorthKorean nuclear crisis ended on Friday with participantsoptimistic that Pyongyang would return to six-countrynegotiations, the organizer said, but no date was fixed.

"Conference participants agreed that discussions were frankand constructive and we are optimistic that the North Koreanswill return to the Six Party Talks," Donald Zagoria of theNational Committee on American Foreign Policy said in a writtenstatement.

Participants included officials from all six countriesinvolved in the long-stalled formal negotiations on Pyongyang'snuclear weapons programs -- the United States, North Korea,South Korea, Japan, China and Russia.

Zagoria, who was not immediately available to answerquestions, said the committee would hold further suchconferences.

His statement did not give any details, including whetherthe reclusive communist state had a date in mind when thesix-party talks would resume. Speculation has focused on thelatter part of July.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormackindicated the North Korean official attending the New Yorkconference -- Ri Gun -- did not specify a date.

"All the members of the six-party talks are still waitingto hear from North Korea a date when they will return to the... talks and engage in those talks in a constructive manner,"he told reporters.

McCormack acknowledged that Ri and the head of the U.S.delegation -- Ambassador Joseph DeTrani -- had had a "contact"in the course of the conference but insisted "this was not anegotiation." He gave no details on what was discussed.

The Bush administration is adamant it will not negotiatebilaterally with Pyongyang. It says the six-party talks are theessential forum for achieving an end to North Korea's nuclearprogram, which it sees as a major security threat.

Reviving the talks has taken on special urgency because ofsigns North Korea is expanding its nuclear capabilities. U.S.officials say Pyongyang may have eight or more nuclear weapons,up from one or two at the start of the Bush presidency.

McCormack urged Pyongyang to return to the six-countrytalks and negotiate on a U.S. proposal that he said would giveNorth Korea "the opportunity for the respect that they say theywant and the aid that they say that they need."

During the invitation-only New York conference,participants discussed competing ideas about Pyongyang'snuclear program and ways to break the year-long impasse.

The conference provided a rare opportunity for U.S. andNorth Korean officials to communicate directly at a criticaltime. North Korea for over a year has boycotted talks seeking adiplomatic solution and U.S. officials say they increasinglybelieve Pyongyang is determined to keep its nuclear programs.

Analysts say divisions in the U.S. administration underminePresident Bush's commitment to a diplomatic solution and someincreasingly fear Bush will never agree to any deal that propsup Pyongyang's communist government.