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N. Korea, U.S. Agree to More Talks

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BEIJING - The United States and North Korea agreed on Thursday to hold more one-on-one contacts, keeping conciliatory mood despite deep differences over proposals at six-way talks to scrap Pyongyang's nuclear weapons programmes.

"They agreed to continue holding consultations," Qin Gang, spokesman for the Chinese delegation to the talks, told reporters after Americans and North Koreans held a third bilateral meeting since Monday on the sidelines of the multilateral conference.

After a buoyant start to the long-awaited fourth round of talks that saw unprecedented contact between the U.S. and North Korean teams, the parties fell back to more entrenched views on how the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula should unfold.

But Thursday's latest bilateral meeting, after exchanges on Monday and Tuesday, continued a pattern of unusually frequent exchanges that has marked a change in the U.S. approach and raised hopes for a positive outcome.

China's official Xinhua news agency said the meeting lasted about three hours, far longer than either of the previous two.

"The talks are moving forward in the right directionbut the North Korean nuclear issue is complicated and it is normal for differences to exist among the various parties," Qin said.

"It's far too early to say if it's a breakthrough or a breakdown," he added.

Qin said no end-date had been set for the talks, and various parties would hold more bilateral contacts on Friday. Chief Russian envoy Alexander Alexeyev said he was flying back to Moscow on Saturday and it was possible that other delegates might return home for weekend consultations.

Joint document?

Xinhua quoted a South Korean delegation official saying that all sides -- both Koreas, the United States, Japan, Russia and China -- had agreed at a Chinese-hosted lunch on Thursday "to strive for substantive results, including a joint document."

If they did reach a consensus sufficient to produce such a document, it would be a first in a tortuous process which has dragged on for almost three years.

U.S. chief negotiator Christopher Hill told reporters he was hopeful that the six delegations could begin drafting a text in the next 24 hours.

"When we start drafting, we want to make sure that the drafting becomes the easy part and that there is already a consensus on how to proceed," he said.

"I just want to tell you this is not an easy process. It takes time. We're working through this with five other parties."

North Korea has reacted coolly to a U.S. offer to provide it with security guarantees and South Korean aid in return for the North agreeing to dismantle -- not just freeze -- its nuclear programmes in a verifiable way.

Pyongyang has insisted on security guarantees and aid pledges before it moves to scrap its weapons programme, and a senior U.S. official told reporters the North Koreans had objected to the proposal that they should move first.

The North has staked out a tough position, demanding Washington remove nuclear weapons from the peninsula. The United States, which keeps more than 30,000 troops in South Korea, says it no longer has such weapons there.

Positive Signs

Despite the continuing U.S.-North Korea stalemate, Russian negotiator Alexeyev said he saw positive signs. "This may be the first time both sides spoke so deeply ... and for such a long time about not generalities but concrete problems."

He added that even if there was no direct outcome at the present round of talks, this meant the dialogue could not be considered a complete failure.

The nuclear standoff erupted in October 2002 when U.S. officials accused Pyongyang of pursuing a clandestine weapons programme, prompting it to expel U.N. nuclear inspectors.

Last February 10, North Korea announced that it had nuclear weapons. It demanded Washington provide aid, security guarantees and diplomatic recognition in return for scrapping them, a sequence that remains at odds with the U.S. position.

Russia's Interfax news agency added a new twist to the story on Thursday, quoting a diplomatic source as saying that North Korea as yet had no functioning nuclear arsenal at all.

The agency said the source, described as being close to the Beijing talks, said Pyongyang had advised its ally, China, after declaring its nuclear status in February, that it had developed a detonator to activate nuclear charges.

After completing this work, North Korea announced that it had become another nuclear power, "because the production of all the components for nuclear weapons had become technically possible", the source said.

Interfax said the source believed Pyongyang would not spend large sums of money on mass production and stockpiling of nuclear weapons as long as it had hopes of reaching a desirable outcome at the six-party talks. (Please see N. Korea May Not Have Nuclear Bombs, Interfax Reports)

The U.S. military commander in South Korea confessed that even he was unclear if Pyongyang's nuclear boast was true.

"North Korea has self-proclaimed itself as a nuclear power and on several occasions said they had nuclear weapons," General Leon LaPorte said on Thursday.

"North Korea is the only one that could precisely answer the question whether they have nuclear weapons."

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