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BEIJING (AFP) – Six-nation talks aimed at pressing North Korea into giving up its nuclear weapons have resumed for what delegates said could be a watershed moment in the four years of negotiations.

Four months after North Korea conducted its first atomic test to back its claims of being a nuclear power, envoys met again in the Chinese capital amid cautious hopes the reclusive nation may be willing to eventually disarm.

US envoy Christopher Hill said ahead of the talks he hoped Pyongyang would re-commit to a six-party deal reached in September 2005, when it agreed to abandon its nuclear programme in exchange for aid, energy benefits and security guarantees.

The agreement fell apart two months later amid North Korean protests over unrelated US sanctions imposed against it for alleged money laundering and counterfeiting.

Although the sanctions standoff remains, Hill said he expected North Korean envoy Kim Kye-Gwan would negotiate this week on reviving the 2005 deal, following positive direct talks between the pair in Berlin last month.

“I have every reason to believe that, but it’s really between him and his boss,” Hill said on Thursday morning when asked if Kim may be more willing to negotiate than in previous six-party talks that have made no progress.

Kim said he was neither optimistic or pessimistic about the new round of talks and that the onus was on the United States to lead the parties back to the 2005 pact.

Graphic on the nuclear envoys at the six-nation talks
©AFP

“We are ready to discuss the initial steps, but whether the US will give up its hostile policy against us and come out for mutual peaceful co-existence will be the basis for our judgement,” Kim said after arriving in Beijing.

China is the host of the six-party forum, which began in 2003 with the initial aim of getting North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

The stakes were raised after North Korea’s atomic test in October last year, and the forum now hopes to convince the Stalinist regime to disarm entirely.

As well as China, North Korea and the United States, other countries in the process are Japan, Russia and South Korea.

The Japanese envoy to the talks, Kenichiro Sasae, said on Wednesday after arriving in Beijing that the diplomatic process had reached a crucial moment following nearly four years of negotiations.

“I believe the six-party talks are at a watershed in this round. What’s important is that we take concrete steps towards denuclearisation of North Korea,” Sasae said.

South Korean envoy Chun Yung-Woo said the six-party forum was at a “crossroads”, while Hill conveyed a similar sense of urgency.

“It’s a very important round because those of us who have been involved with this know that this cannot go on forever,” he said.

Hill has in recent days talked of possibly offering North Korea economic incentives in a “first tranche” of measures that would see Pyongyang take initial steps towards fulfilling its September 2005 commitments.

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso (L) welcomes Christopher Hill (R), US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, at the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo, 06 February 2007
©AFP/File – Kazuhiro Nogi

However he has also warned that there were no prospects of North Korea completely disarming any time soon.

Hill denied a report in Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper that he and Kim had signed a memorandum during last month’s Berlin talks in which North Korea agreed to shut down its nuclear reactor in exchange for energy aid.

“Although it was a very useful discussion, we did not sign anything,” he said.

The talks began on Thursday with a gathering of the chief envoys at 3:15 pm (0715 GMT), a Chinese foreign ministry official said, to be followed by an official opening ceremony, plenary session and group dinner.

No timeframe has been released for this round of talks although delegates have said they expect it to last at least two or three days.

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