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US eyes mid-December for North Korea talks

Written by: Staff

BEIJING, Nov 21 (Reuters) Six-party talks aimed at dismantling North Korea's nuclear weapons programme could be held in mid-December, the top US negotiator said today, but he stressed the need for preparation as he ended talks in China.

U S Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill's visit was the latest step in an elaborate diplomatic waltz intended to draw North Korea back to talks and agree on steps towards ending its nuclear weapons development, which has alarmed regional capitals and even its longtime backer, China.

''I believe we will have six-party talks, probably by the middle of December, but what is important for us is that they be well planned and that's why I came today,'' Hill told reporters before leaving the Chinese capital.

''I came up to talk to my Chinese counterparts about preparations for the six-party talks to make sure we agree with how we would like to proceed.'' Hill was in Beijing last month for talks with China and North Korea that led to the North agreeing to return to the talks, which it had boycotted for a year over US financial restrictions.

Hill said this time he met Beijing's chief envoy to the talks, Vice Foreign Minister Wu Dawei, but not North Korea's chief nuclear negotiator, Kim Kye-gwan.

BANK FREEZE The North agreed to return to the talks, which involve the two Koreas, the United States, host China, Japan and Russia, three weeks after it conducted a nuclear test on Oct. 9, which brought widespread international condemnation and UN-backed sanctions.

Pyongyang agreed after Washington said it was willing to ''address'' North Korean concerns about the financial restrictions, which escalated in September last year when U.S.

regulators named a Macau bank, Banco Delta Asia, as a conduit for illicit North Korean cash from money counterfeiting and drug trafficking.

Macau is a small self-governed territory of China, and since the bank there was targeted, many other international banks have stopped or severely curtailed dealings with North Korea.

Today, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu denied earlier South Korean reports suggesting that Beijing had eased a freeze on some of the North Korean money in the Macau bank.

Jiang said the financial sanctions had been carried out by Macau, not Beijing.

''We support the Macau government in handling this according to the law,'' she said. Hill also said he had received no confirmation of the reported bank easing.

But Jiang also repeated China's position that the bank dispute should not impede restarting the disarmament talks.

''We also hope that all sides will be able to focus on the bigger picture of the six-party talks,'' Jiang said, urging ''an appropriate resolution as soon as possible.'' REUTERS PDM HT1512

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