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U.S.-North Korea to Hold Talks Over Nuclear Standoff

President Bush has approved the plan to begin negotiations with Pyongyang, the New York Times reported on Wednesday, citing U.S. and Asian officials.

The meeting, scheduled for April 23 in Beijing, will be the first time U.S. officials have met directly with their North Korean counterparts since Kim Jong Il’s government pulled out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty nearly six months ago.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly will reportedly lead the negotiating team. Kelly previously held meetings with North Korean officials in Pyongyang last October, during which North Korean officials told Kelly that North Korea was secretly building a uranium-production facility. News of that information sparked the six-month standoff between Washington and Pyongyang over its nuclear ambitions.

The White House’s national security spokesman Sean McCormack confirmed on Wednesday that North Korea has agreed to let China host the talks and participate in them.

“You should look at these as initial discussions. We do not expect an immediate breakthrough but we are looking for progress,” said McCormack.

North Korea’s agreement to enter negotiations marks a rare concession for Pyongyang — which had insisted that any talks about its nuclear program be held with the United States alone — and a partial victory for President George Bush, who has repeatedly pushed for multilateral talks with regional countries, like South Korea, Japan, and Russia.

Though Russia, South Korea, and Japan were excluded from the Beijing negotiations, McCormack said the U.S. would seek to include North Korea’s neighbors in the discussions as soon as possible.

“We all agreed that we would continue to press for the Japanese and South Korea’s early inclusion in talks as one of our top priorities — and possibly Russia in the future,” McCormack said.

South Korea’s government on Wednesday expressed support for the trilateral talks, while noting that the U.S. and China had promised that Seoul will eventually participate in the meetings.

“We decided to support the talks because it is of paramount importance that talks begin to lay the foundation for a peaceful solution to this problem,” South Korea’s Foreign Minister Yoon Young-kwan said at a press conference on Wednesday.

“The United States had been calling for multilateral talks, and with North Korea rejecting the multilateral dialogue, China made a counter proposal of three-way talks. North Korea accepted this counter proposal,” the South Korean foreign minister said at a news conference in Seoul Wednesday.

Beijing has not elaborated on the role it intends to play in the discussions, but the New York Times on Wednesday indicated that the Bush administration believed China would take a lead role in the talks.

“What’s new here is that there is an active, bold participatory role for the Chinese,” an unidentified official told the New York Times.

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