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North Korea, United States show signs of potential flexibility

The United States and North Korea appeared to be maneuvering towards greater flexibility in the 16-month stand-off over Pyongyang's nuclear program, as diplomats from six countries arrived in Beijing ahead of a second round of talks on the crisis, RFA reports.

South Korean deputy foreign minister Lee Soo-hyuck told reporters before flying to Beijing that U.S. envoy James Kelly had responded positively to proposals made at preliminary talks in Seoul that North Korea first freeze its nuclear program, then abolish it while allowing verification.

"If such conditions are enforced, the United States has no strong objection to a North Korean nuclear freeze," said Lee Soo-hyuck said after talks with Kelly and Mitoji Yabunaka, Japan's chief negotiator at the six-party talks, which begin in Beijing Wednesday.

Washington had previously insisted on an explicit acknowledgment of North Korea's uranium program as part of an agreement to a complete and verifiable dismantling of its weapons programs, before it is offered aid and security guarantees. That Pyongyang has a plutonium program is already widely acknowledged.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said North Korea appeared to be preparing for a softening of its hard line stance ahead of the talks. He said North Korean officials had suggested during a visit by an Australian delegation to Pyongyang three weeks ago that they would be prepared to wind up their country's nuclear program in return for a security guarantee.

"I think the North Koreans realize that continuing down the path of ignoring the wishes of the international community ultimately isn't going to get them anywhere," Downer said. "Secondly I think they realize that just a freeze on their nuclear activities isn't going to be enough, that they will have to wind back their nuclear activities. That's what they told our officials and that's encouraging," he said.

The first round of China-brokered six-party talks in August 2003 ended with no substantive changes, apart from an agreement in principle to meet again. The past six months have seen a flurry of diplomatic activity�particularly on the part of Beijing�aimed at setting up a second round.

The Russian, American, and Japanese delegations arrived Monday, and the North and South Koreans were due on separate flights Tuesday morning.

As the delegations began to arrive, eight people identifying themselves as North Korean asylum seekers entered a German embassy school in Beijing Monday. The Chinese authorities have put barbed wire fencing and armed guards around buildings in the city's diplomatic district to discourage similar bids.

South Korea closed its consulate in Beijing last year to cope with about 130 asylum seekers who had taken refuge in the mission. As many as 300,000 North Koreans are believed to be in hiding in northeastern China, hoping for passage to a third country. Hundreds of North Koreans fleeing hunger and repression at home have been allowed to leave China for the rival South after seeking refuge at embassies and other foreign offices.

Beijing, a close ally of Pyongyang, has an agreement with its fellow communist neighbour to repatriate North Koreans, whom it views as economic migrants rather than refugees, but it has let some North Koreans reach South Korea through third countries. #####


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