U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met North Korea's top diplomat here Wednesday, ending a four-year hiatus in cabinet-level contacts between the Bush administration and the Stalinist state over its nuclear program.
Rice and North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Ui Chun smiled for photos as they greeted each other and their counterparts from the four other nations - China, Japan, Russia and South Korea - involved in the effort to get the North to abandon atomic weapons. The diplomats were accompanied by dozens of aides, and reporters couldn't see if Rice and Pak shook hands.
"I think this is quite significant," said Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi. "It shows the six parties have the political will to move forward with the six-party talks process."
"We should all continuously contribute to the progress of this process," Yang added. "When we look back we find that because of this spirit of mutual benefit and win-win progress we have been able to overcome quite a few difficulties and we have completed the implementation of the initial phase."
Yang said the parties had made "major headway" in obtaining verifiable accounting of North Korea's nuclear program.
Ahead of the talks on the sidelines of an Asian security conference in Singapore, Rice said she and the others would press for North Korea to prove it has told the truth about its past atomic activities by agreeing to a U.S.-drafted verification proposal.
But hours before the meeting, North Korea insisted it had met its commitments and said Washington must completely abandon its "hostile policies" toward the regime.
North Korean spokesman Ri Tong Il told reporters that Pyongyang hoped the meeting would build momentum toward ending the declaration and verification stage and move toward a formal end to the 1950-53 Korean War, which closed with an armistice and not a peace treaty.
"What is important in the next stage is that these measures should lead to a complete abandonment of hostile (U.S.) policies toward our republic," he said. Pyongyang maintains that Washington is intent on North Korea's destruction.
Diplomats said they expected Pak to present at least an initial response to the four-page proposed "verification protocol" that was given to North Korea this month following its long-delayed delivery of an accounting of its nuclear programs in June.
Chief U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill said he believed the meeting would "give some indication of the amount of effort the North Koreans have put into completing this verification protocol."
The draft calls for intrusive inspections of North Korean nuclear facilities, soil sampling, interviews with key scientists and a role for U.N. atomic experts. Hill travels on Friday to the International Atomic Energy Agency headquarters in Vienna to brief them on developments.
The six-way talks mark the first time since 2004 that the top diplomats from the United States and North Korea have met face-to-face.
Wednesday's gathering, billed as an informal affair, was held in a hotel ballroom. The participants sat in overstuffed armchairs arranged in a circle with a flower arrangement in the middle. Rice sat between the Chinese and Russian foreign ministers. Pak sat between the Chinese and Japanese ministers.
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