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Expectations low as N. Korea nuclear talks set to resume

US, Pyongyang have not budged from positions

BEIJING -- A fresh round of international talks aimed at persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons ambitions resumes this week after a 13-month suspension, and a key US envoy said yesterday that the new negotiations will not be the last.

The talks starting tomorrow involve six nations, but key protagonists Washington and Pyongyang have not budged from positions in previous rounds.

The United States refuses to give any concessions until North Korea is certified as free of nuclear weapons. North Korea does not want to turn over its nuclear trump card without receiving something first in return.

''I wouldn't expect this to be the last set of negotiations," Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the US representative to the talks, said in Beijing. ''The negotiations have been in suspension . . . for over a year, so we have to see where we go with these."

''We would like to make some measurable progress. It's going to take a little time, it's going to take a lot of work, but we come here in a real spirit of trying to make some real progress."

Specialists say the negotiations will go on because Washington would be hesitant to use other options -- a military invasion or economic sanctions -- that others in the talks like China and South Korea would oppose. The talks also include Japan and Russia.

''I don't see any basis for a compromise between Washington and Pyongyang," said Gary Samore, a nonproliferation specialist at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

''The heart of the issue is whether North Korea is prepared to give up its nuclear weapons," Samore said. ''In my view, the answer is no."

North Korea has repeatedly claimed its nuclear weapons programs are a ''self-defensive deterrent force" against what it calls hostile US policies.

In February, it publicly claimed that it had nuclear weapons and has since made moves that would allow it to harvest more radioactive material for bombs. Although specialists believe that North Korea has enough weapons-grade plutonium for about a half-dozen bombs, it has not performed any known nuclear tests that would prove it can make a functioning atomic weapon.

On Friday, Pyongyang laid out its ultimate goal for the nuclear talks -- a peace treaty with Washington that would formally end the war they fought a half-century ago. The 1950-53 Korean War ended in a cease-fire, leaving the two Koreas technically at war with hundreds of thousands of troops facing off across the border, including 32,500 US troops deployed in the South.

A peace pact would end the US policy ''which spawned the nuclear issue . . . and automatically result in the denuclearization of the peninsula," an unnamed spokesman from the North Korean Foreign Ministry said Friday in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.

The talks have gone on since 2003, and three previous rounds have failed to reach any breakthroughs.

Yesterday, the agency reiterated a standard position.

''If the US drops its ambition for a 'regime change' and opts for peaceful coexistence with [North Korea], the talks can make successful progress and settle the issue of denuclearizing the peninsula," the North's Rodong Sinmun daily newspaper wrote in an editorial, according to the Korean Central News Agency.

The United States has repeatedly said it has no intention of invading North Korea. Last Tuesday, President Bush said: ''We are committed to solving the North Korean nuclear issue in a diplomatic way."

Military action against North Korea's regime would be difficult for the United States, whose military is stretched too thin with 150,000 troops in Iraq, said Jon Wolfsthal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace based in Washington.

''The US has few options other than to negotiate," Wolfsthal said.

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