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Last Updated: Friday, 1 August, 2003, 17:24 GMT 18:24 UK
N Korea agrees to nuclear talks
The news may ease the tension between North Korea and the US
North Korea has said it is ready to take part in multilateral talks on its controversial nuclear programme.

The announcement, issued by the North's KCNA news agency, paves the way for six-nation talks to try to resolve a crisis which has led to mounting security fears across Asia.

The North's apparent readiness to take part in discussions including the US' Asian allies, South Korea and Japan, marks the first real breakthrough in the crisis since April.

Five of the six states involved want North Korea to give up any nuclear weapons

The North appeared to have dropped an insistence that it would only discuss the nuclear issue with the US.

The North Korean statement said such bilateral talks would now take place "within the framework of multilateral talks".

US encouraged

US President George W Bush welcomed North Korea's decision, saying he was "optimistic" about the talks and hoped they would persuade Pyongyang to "totally dismantle" its weapons programme.

"In the past it was the lone voice of the United States speaking clearly about this. Now we'll have other parties who have got a vested interest in peace on the Korean peninsula," Mr Bush said.

A senior US State Department official, John Bolton, said the North Korean move was "very encouraging".

But Mr Bolton, who on Thursday called the North's leader Kim Jong-il a "tyrannical dictator", warned that talks alone could not resolve the issues.

"I don't think the timing of those talks will affect our ongoing, continuing concern for the two nuclear weapons programmes the North Koreans are conducting," he said, during a visit to Japan.

No date has been set for the talks, which are likely to be held in Beijing and include China and Russia, as well as the US, South and North Korea, and Japan.

'Secret weapons'

The Russian foreign ministry, which first announced the North's willingness for talks on Thursday, said it expected talks to begin in the near future.

The crisis over North Korea's nuclear ambitions started in October 2002, when the US accused the North of developing a secret weapons programme.

Since then the North has withdrawn from the Treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, and claimed to have reprocessed spent nuclear fuel to make weapons-grade plutonium.

Some analysts suspect the North wants to trade its nuclear capabilities for a non-aggression pact with the US, as well as economic and diplomatic rewards.

But the US has said it will not accept North Korean "nuclear blackmail", and any agreement would be conditional on the North putting a full and verifiable end to its nuclear programmes

The BBC's Seoul correspondent, Charles Scanlon, says any agreements on inspections and verification will be a significant obstacle for North Korea, one of the world's most secretive and militaristic nations.

The BBC's Charles Scanlon
"It's the clearest sign of a breakthrough after nine months of confrontation"

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