North Korea confirmed on Wednesday that it would return to six-nation nuclear disarmament talks after a year-long boycott, as the chief US envoy stressed that the world needed to see progress at the next round.
The announcement that Pyongyang had agreed to return to the negotiating table came late on Tuesday in Beijing, less than a month after the reclusive communist state stunned the world with its first atom bomb test.
Officials in Seoul said the talks on ending the North's nuclear programs would likely resume after a series of bilateral meetings among the key players on the sidelines of an Asia-Pacific summit in Vietnam later this month.
World leaders welcomed North Korea's decision to rejoin the talks, which it had boycotted since November 2005 over the US imposition of financial sanctions, but the breakthrough was also greeted with some skepticism.
"The DPRK (North Korea) decided to return to the six-party talks on the premise that the issue of lifting financial sanctions will be discussed and settled between the DPRK and the US within the framework of the six-party talks," the North Korean foreign ministry said.
Christopher Hill, the lead US representative to the talks, said on Tuesday in Beijing that he had told North Korean envoy Kim Kye-Gwan that Washington was willing to consider the matter.
"They made very clear that these were not conditions but they wanted to hear that we would address the issue of the financial measures in the context of the talks," Hill said after talks with Kim and Chinese envoy Wu Dawei.
"And I said we would be prepared to create a mechanism or working group and to address these financial issues."
But he added: "As someone who has been involved in this, I have not broken out the cigars and the champagne quite yet."
The six-way talks -- which began in 2003 -- bring together North and South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States.
North Korea agreed in September 2005 to scrap its nuclear programs in exchange for energy and security guarantees.
But it walked out of the negotiations two months later in protest at unilateral US sanctions aimed at blocking its access to the international banking system.
Before heading home to the United States on Wednesday, Hill said further stalling from Pyongyang would not be acceptable.
"This next session has to be very carefully planned because we must achieve progress in these sessions," Hill told reporters at Beijing's international airport.
"We'll see if we can make some progress... (but it) will be very difficult and we have a long way to go."
Pyongyang angered the international community in July when it test-fired seven missiles, a move that prompted weapons-related UN sanctions.
Last month's underground nuclear test earned the North further global scorn and led the UN Security Council to slap another round of financial, trade and military sanctions on Pyongyang.
US President George W. Bush led international praise of the diplomatic breakthrough, saying he was "very pleased with the progress made".
South Korea and Japan also welcomed the news, but Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso cautioned that the decision could not be embraced "with open arms" and that sanctions would remain in place.
In Seoul, Vice Foreign Minister Yu Myung-Hwan said the talks were "most likely to take place following high-level coordination" on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit on November 18-19 in Hanoi.
But he added that Pyongyang still faced tough punishment for its nuclear activities.
"If the talks bear fruit, the United Nations Security Council would adopt a new resolution to ease the sanctions but the mere fact that North Korea decided to return to the talks will not result in eased sanctions," Yu said.
South Korean President Roh Moo-Hyun, under fire at home for his "sunshine" policy of engagement with the North, signalled he would pursue the policy by appointing close allies to handle foreign affairs and relations with Pyongyang.
Chief presidential security adviser Song Min-Soon was named foreign minister to replace Ban Ki-Moon, who will be the next United Nations secretary general, while Lee Jae-Joung will take over the unification ministry.
Both are seen as advocates of engagement with the North.