US hopeful as North Korea talks open in China

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BEIJING, Sep 27 (Reuters) The US envoy was hopeful and his South Korean counterpart wary as delegates from six countries opened talks today aimed at dismantling North Korea's nuclear weapons programme.

Under an agreement reached on February 13, Pyongyang must disable its atomic facilities and make a complete declaration of all its nuclear programmes. In return, the impoverished communist state will receive 950,000 tonnes of heavy fuel or the equivalent.

Top US negotiator Christopher Hill, who had dinner with the North Koreans on Wednesday, held further talks with them before the six countries gathered late in the day.

''I wanted to follow up on some issues that we didn't get to last night and I wanted to do it in a more structured environment,'' he told reporters.

Asked if there were big differences between the two sides, he said, ''We had an expert team go there (North Korea). They came up with some ideas. You know, we'd like to do more. The DPRK (North Korea) likes to do less. We'll figure out a way through that.'' At today's plenary session, Hill and North Korean counterpart Kim Kye-gwan chatted, seemingly amicably, and Kim handed Hill some papers. It was not clear what their contents were.

Wu Dawei, the chief Chinese delegate who hosted the session, said in an opening statement that talks were moving in the right direction but were far from over.

''A new harvest season looms in front of us,'' he said.

''We hope the parties can tightly focus on the theme of the talks this time in the spirit of mutual benefit and common gain and bravely overcome the remaining difficulties and obstacles lying ahead ...,'' he said.

North Korea shut down and sealed its Soviet-era Yongbyon nuclear plant and allowed UN atomic energy monitors back to the site in July, its first steps in seeing through the breakthrough Feb 13 deal.

In return, Pyongyang has received shiploads of heavy fuel oil and held bilateral talks with the United States that could bring the fortress state out of diplomatic isolation.

But the country must still move ahead to disable its nuclear arms programmes.

Hill, assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs, said that could happen by the end of the year but he warned against over-optimism in the six-party process, which includes both Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States.

South Korea's top negotiator, Chun Yung-woo, said some hurdles were bound to emerge.

''There will be some unexpected difficulties in the next phase but the (South Korean) delegation will do its best to reach the goal of the talks,'' Xinhua news agency yesterday Chun as saying.

The talks could also be clouded by speculation that a Sept. 6 Israeli air strike on Syria may have been triggered by concerns that Syria received nuclear help from North Korea. Pyongyang has denied the claim.


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