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Early Signs of Progress in Talks on North Korea's Nuclear Weapons

The United States and its regional partners are trying to convince North Korea to uphold a two-year-old promise to dismantle its nuclear weapons programs. VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Beijing talks on ending North Korea's nuclear ambitions have formally opened.

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wu Dawei opened the North Korean nuclear talks by thanking participants for their work to push the negotiations forward.

He says based on bilateral meetings that have taken place since the last meeting in December, he believes all the parties will make "fresh and further" efforts to implement a joint declaration aimed at ending the North's nuclear-weapons programs.

Arriving in Beijing, North Korean chief nuclear negotiator Kim Kye Kwan said he is ready to discuss "first steps" toward implementing Pyongyang's promise to end those nuclear programs.

He says he is waiting to see whether Washington will drop what he describes as its "hostile attitude" toward the North, and "come out toward peaceful coexistence.

" In September 2005, North Korea promised China, Russia, Japan, South Korea, and the United States to end its nuclear-weapons programs in exchange for economic aid, energy assistance, and diplomatic benefits.

But it boycotted further talks for more than a year after the U.S. Treasury Department blacklisted a Macau bank associated with North Korea. U.S. officials say the bank had helped North Korea launder money and counterfeit dollars.

The sanctions had a ripple effect as other banks voluntarily distanced themselves from Pyongyang to avoid U.S. scrutiny, making it difficult for the North to do international business.

The North Koreans returned to December's six-party talks, two months after conducting their first nuclear weapons test, and only on the promise the financial sanctions issue would be discussed. That round produced little progress.

Last month, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill met with the North Korean negotiators, fueling speculation of a compromise.

Chun Yong-woo, the chief South Korean delegate, says cooperation and flexibility are needed. He says up until now, North Korea's September 2005 promise has existed only as words. The time has come, he says, for those words to become actions.

Many international experts say there is reason to believe Washington will offer to lift at least some of the financial sanctions in exchange for an initial assurance by Pyongyang that it is freezing or dismantling its nuclear capabilities.

Even if the North offers incremental progress, many longer-term questions remain. The United States says a temporary nuclear freeze is no replacement for completely and verifiably dismantling the program. To verify any deal, experts say International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors must have access to North Korean nuclear facilities and Pyongyang must fully declare nuclear materials it has. North Korea has not made any commitments yet on either issue.