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(photo credit: AP [file])
US President George W. Bush on Tuesday welcomed an agreement to bring North Korea back to six-party talks arms talks and said the United States will insist the communist regime abandon its nuclear weapons program in a verifiable fashion.
To lure the North back, Washington agreed to discuss the financial sanctions that Washington imposed on North Korea a year ago for its alleged complicity in counterfeiting and money laundering to sell weapons of mass destruction. Those sanctions attempted to sever Pyongyang from the international financial system. North Korea has boycotted the six-party talks since the sanctions were imposed.
On Tuesday, three weeks after conducting a nuclear test, North Korea agreed to rejoin the multination disarmament talks in a surprise diplomatic breakthrough, the Chinese and US governments said.
Envoys to the negotiations from China, the United States and North Korea held a day of unpublicized talks in Beijing during which North Korea agreed to return to the larger six-nation talks on its nuclear programs, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement on its Web site.
A US diplomat confirmed the agreement separately, but refused to provide details.
"The three parties agreed to resume the six-party talks at the earliest convenient time," the statement said.
US Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill says six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program could resume as early as November or December
The agreement is one of the first signs of easing tensions since North Korea conducted the test on October 9, defying warnings from its old nemeses the United States and Japan and its staunchest ally, China.
If the six-party talks resume, it would mark a diplomatic victory for China, which in the wake of the test had argued not to punish North Korea too harshly and to leave open a path for diplomacy.
A top South Korean minister on Tuesday rejected criticism that his government has been "lukewarm" in imposing sanctions against North Korea, stressing that open relations were needed to lure the reclusive communist state back to disarmament talks.
Seoul has been trying to strike a delicate balance in punishing the North for its nuclear test; seeking to avoid aggravating its volatile neighbor while imposing sanctions according to a unanimous UN Security Council resolution.
South Korea's chief minister for North Korean affairs, Lee Jong-seok, said Seoul would comply with the UN resolution, but that its policy of engaging the North would "not change significantly" in light of its long-term goal of establishing peace on the divided peninsula.
The two Koreas remain technically at war since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a cease-fire, not a peace treaty, but relations have warmed significantly since their leaders' only summit meeting in 2000.
South Korea welcomed the North's agreement to return to talks.
"The government hopes that the six-party talks will resume at an early date as agreed and that an agreement will be reached on how to implement" a prior accord under which Pyongyang pledged to abandon its nuclear program, South Korea's Foreign Ministry spokesman Choo Kyu-ho said.
The UN resolution calls for a ban on the sale of major arms to Pyongyang and inspection of cargo entering and leaving the country. It also calls for the freezing of assets of businesses supplying North Korea's nuclear and ballistic weapons programs, as well as restrictions on sales of luxury goods and travel bans on North Korean officials.
On Tuesday, North Korea claimed that the United States, "scared" by the North's nuclear test, conducted some 200 spy flights over the communist country during October.
"The ... aerial espionage underscores the need for the army and the people of the (North Korea) to bolster the war deterrent for self-defense in every way to foil the US imperialists' moves for a war of aggression," the North's official Korean Central News Agency said.
The KCNA report came as leaders of South Korea's minor opposition Democratic Labor Party, including two national legislators, arrived in Pyongyang for talks with North Korean officials, including No. 2 leader, Kim Yong Nam. A party official in Seoul said the delegation may also meet leader Kim Jong Il. The party has said the delegation would express opposition to the October 9 test and any future tests.
Also on Tuesday, South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon left for Russia on a trip that will also take him to France later this week. Ban is expected to thank Moscow after his election as the next UN secretary-general, but the North Korean nuclear issue is expected to be a key topic for his talks with Russian officials.