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S Korea pushing pace to resume North nuclear talks

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SEOUL, Feb 22 (Reuters) South Korea's new chief nuclear envoy will soon travel to countries involved in talks on ending the North's atomic programmes in an intensifying effort to restart negotiations, its foreign minister said today.

Ban Ki-moon told reporters Deputy Foreign Minister Chun Yung-woo's travel would probably help set the stage for the talks, stalled since November because of a US-North Korea dispute following Washington's crackdown on firms suspected of aiding illicit North Korean financial activities.

Another South Korean official said there may be fresh momentum between the United States and North Korea to return to the talks, while the top US negotiator pressed China and others to do more to bring the North Koreans back to the table.

China, Japan, the two Koreas, Russia and the United States are involved in the talks.

The United States has cracked down on firms suspected of aiding North Korea in counterfeiting US dollars, money laundering and drug trafficking it says help to fund the North's nuclear programmes.

North Korea has denied being involved in such activities and said it would be unreasonable to continue the talks as long as Washington imposes sanctions aimed at toppling its leadership.

''We expect the overall picture for the six-party talks will surface through the chief envoy's visit to related countries for close consultations,'' Ban said.

But he said it was difficult to predict when the talks would resume, even if ''all the countries involved in the talks hope for a speedy resumption''.

An unnamed South Korean official said yesterday the six countries involved in the negotiations were discussing possibly resuming the talks in late March or early April.

There have been bilateral contacts among North Korea, China and the United States which might unlock the standoff and pave the way for a new round of the nuclear talks, the official said.

The countries have failed to move forward since agreeing in September to a set of principles that could eventually see the North give up its nuclear programmes and receive aid and a promise of better diplomatic ties with Washington and Tokyo.

That has been the only substantive product of five rounds and seven cumbersome sessions of talks in more than two years. Often the countries have seemed to outsiders to exert more effort on agreeing to meet than on negotiating a deal that works.

''We think everybody should try to do more,'' the top US envoy to the talks, Christopher Hill, was quoted as saying in the Financial Times newspaper today. ''We cannot have a situation where North Korea is left to develop nuclear weapons.'' Hill said China needed to make sure it left no option untried in trying to coax the North back to the table.

South Korea has said there were signs the North may be positioning itself to return to the talks.

''It is our assessment that the United States and North Korea are gradually moving toward resuming the six-party talks,'' Unification Minister Lee Jong-seok told a South Korean radio programme.

North Korea has shown signs of easing its condition for resuming the talks, Lee said. ''But it's hard to say conclusively in what form the North will talk about it and what it will do.'' REUTERS SI SP1200

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