BEIJING — After a year of resisting, North Korea told the United States on Saturday that it would resume six-nation talks in late July with the goal of negotiating its nuclear disarmament.
The head of the North Korean delegation to the previous six-party talks, Kim Gye Gwan, conveyed his government's decision to U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill at a dinner hosted by the Chinese government. The discussions are to resume the week of July 24.
U.S. officials traveling to China with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice suggested that North Korea's worsening economy might have influenced its decision, along with its realization that it would not receive desperately needed energy assistance or end its deepening isolation unless it joined a fourth round of talks with the United States, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia.
North Korea, however, cited other factors. The country had demanded an apology after Rice referred to North Korea as an "outpost of tyranny" during her confirmation hearings, and Pyongyang said it had interpreted recent U.S. diplomatic statements as tantamount to a retraction.
Three previous rounds of negotiations, the last in June 2004, yielded nothing substantial. In February, Pyongyang declared it had nuclear weapons, although it has never tested one.
In Beijing this morning, Rice thanked the Chinese government "for the efforts they have made in recent months to lead to a resumption of the six-party talks."
"We agreed that's only a first step," she said. "The real issue now is to make progress in these talks."
North Korean officials told U.S. diplomats a month ago in New York that their country would return to the talks, but until now it had not set a date.
China and South Korea have been pushing the Bush administration to do more to get negotiations restarted, and have urged the U.S. to hold one-on-one talks with the North, as Pyongyang has demanded. President Bush repeatedly refused.
Saturday's dinner took place at a Chinese Foreign Ministry guesthouse, but no senior Chinese officials attended, a senior U.S. official said. He said the meeting between Kim and Hill was not a bilateral negotiation because it was merely aimed at settling the logistics of the talks.
However, North Korea's official news agency said that during the meeting, "the U.S. renewed its stance that it recognizes North Korea as a sovereign state and vows not to invade it, and will hold bilateral talks within the framework of the six-party talks."
North Korea "interpreted the U.S. side's expression of its stand as a retraction of its remark designating the former as an 'outpost of tyranny' and decided to return to the six-party talks," the news agency said.
If the North Koreans return to the table ready to bargain, it will be a major victory for the Bush administration. U.S. officials said neither threats nor bribes were used to lure Pyongyang back. "There was no proximate catalyzing, arm-twisting event," a second official said.
While Rice and other U.S. diplomats have refused to apologize for the "outpost of tyranny" remark, they have emphasized that the United States respects North Korea's sovereignty and has no intention of attacking or invading.
The resumption of talks would also be a victory for South Korea. Seoul has feared that if the stalemate continues much longer, it will be forced to suspend millions of dollars' worth of joint projects with the North. It also worries that mounting tensions could again raise the specter of war on the peninsula.
South Korea and China have been pushing the U.S. to lay out in detailed steps what economic and security incentives North Korea would receive if it dismantled its nuclear program, but Washington has been reluctant.
In the meantime, the South has been developing an economic assistance proposal for North Korea that Seoul officials describe as a modern-day Marshall Plan, the program used to rebuild Europe after World War II.
The plan is not being proposed formally within the context of the six-party talks, but it appears designed to encourage the negotiations.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il granted a rare personal audience last month in Pyongyang to Chung Dong Young, South Korea's unification minister, to hear about the proposal. Chung subsequently briefed U.S. officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, in Washington.
The proposal includes substantial investment in North Korean infrastructure and help with its energy needs. A South Korean Unification Ministry official, who did not wish to be quoted by name, said discussions were ongoing about how the energy would be supplied.
One possibility would be to supply coal. Another would be to expand an existing program under which fuel and electricity are provided to a jointly run industrial park in the North Korean city of Kaesong and for a tourist project at the North's Mt. Kumgang.