North Korea agreed to return to six-nation disarmament talks in a diplomatic breakthrough that followed pressure from China and a US offer to discuss financial penalties on the North, just three weeks after it rattled the world by conducting a nuclear test.
US President George W Bush cautiously welcomed Tuesday's deal and thanked the Chinese for brokering it. But he said the agreement would not sidetrack US efforts to enforce sanctions adopted by the U.N. Security Council to punish Pyongyang for its October 9 nuclear test.
He told reporters in Washington there was still "a lot of work to do" and that the US would send teams to the region "to make sure that the current United Nations Security Council resolution is enforced."
The ultimate goal is "a North Korea that abandons her nuclear weapons programs and her nuclear weapons in a verifiable fashion in return for a better way forward for her people," the president said.
The unexpected agreement to restart the talks before year's end, US officials said was announced after envoys from North Korea, the United States and China met in Beijing, at China's invitation.
It represented a step back from the nuclear crisis and was widely applauded, if with some reservations. North Korea has a history of walking away from the six-nation talks, only to rejoin them, then to bolt again.
"We believe that the sooner talks resume, the faster the tension around this problem will fade," Igor Ivanov, chief of Russia's presidential Security Council, said in Moscow.
Japan's UN ambassador, Kenzo Oshima, called the development, "a welcome first step, but there are many, many other things that we need to closely monitor and watch." Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso was quoted as saying a resumption of talks "is conditional on North Korea not possessing nuclear weapons."
However, China's leaning on its communist neighbor appeared to be the major factor in the progress and not US diplomacy, and Bush acknowledged Beijing's role in his comments to reporters at the White House.
China, the largest supplier of oil for the North, has more leverage than any other country with Pyongyang. In a possible sign of Beijing's growing impatience, Chinese exports of diesel and heating oil to North Korea dropped substantially in September from a year ago, though export of gasoline, liquefied petroleum gas, kerosene and jet fuel rose, according to Chinese customs data. The six-nation talks involving North and South Korea, the United States, China, Russia and Japan have been stalled since last November. North Korea has boycotted them, largely to protest US financial sanctions for alleged counterfeiting of U.S. currency and money laundering.
Washington has insisted all along that those sanctions, which include a freeze on North Korean bank accounts in Macau, are unrelated to the nuclear weapons dispute.
For its part, the North stepped back from its demand that the financial restrictions be first lifted to return to nuclear talks. And Washington agreed for the first time to discuss the financial sanctions at the nuclear talks, US Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the US negotiator, told reporters in Beijing. Hill said the talks could resume as early as November or December, but he added, "We are a long way from our goal still...I have not broken out the cigars and champagne quite yet." White House press secretary Tony Snow later insisted that the United States made no promises to link the financial-sanctions dispute to the nuclear one, only agreeing that "issues like that may be discussable at some future time."
At the State Department, spokesman Sean McCormack said he was sure there would be "an opportunity for us to have direct talks" with North Korean negotiators in the context of the six-party framework. He said the negotiations would probably take place in Beijing.
The six-party talks had originally been intended to persuade Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear ambitions. But its nuclear test changed the debate and the stakes.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in an interview on CNBC television that the U.S. wanted "concrete steps" toward denuclearizing the Korean peninsula. "It really doesn't make sense again for us just to go back and talk," Rice said. The Security Council voted unanimously on Oct. 14 to impose sanctions on Pyongyang, including a ban on major weapons shipments, inspection of cargo and restrictions on sales of luxury goods.