U.S. and South Korea held nuclear talks

When North Korea pledged on Sept. 19 to scrap its nuclear programs in return for aid and security assurances, it was hailed as a breakthrough in the Korean peninsula's long nuclear saga. The optimism hasn't lasted: Four months later, six-nation nuclear talks are deadlocked as the communist-led North backtracks and tension escalates between Washington and Pyongyang.

Those strained nuclear talks were likely to dominate the conversation between South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the State Department on Thursday. Diplomats from the Koreas, China, the United States, Russia and Japan ended the latest round of negotiations in November. The prospect of a resumption of the talks, which began in 2003, is uncertain.

The North has said it won't set a return date unless the United States ends financial sanctions meant to halt alleged weapons proliferation and counterfeit currency distribution by North Korea. U.S. officials say the sanctions are a criminal issue unrelated to the nuclear talks. Despite the squabbling, there have been some hopeful signs recently.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il reportedly told China's president this week, during a rare trip outside the North, that he was committed to a peaceful resolution of the nuclear standoff. South Korean news reports said U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the lead American envoy to the talks, met Wednesday in Beijing with his North Korean counterpart, Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan, to discuss reviving their efforts.

China said Thursday that it has set up a meeting between U.S. and North Korean officials this week in Beijing to try to restart six-nation talks on the North's nuclear programs. Few details were provided, and Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan didn't identify the U.S. or North Korean officials. But he added, "I won't deny the name you said," when a reporter mentioned U.S. envoy Christopher Hill, who South Korean media had said met with his North Korean counterpart in Beijing, reports the AP. N.U.