The stalled six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program are likely to restart next month, the chief US envoy to the negotiations said here Tuesday after meeting with his Chinese counterpart.
"I believe we will have the six-party talks probably in the middle of December," US Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill told reporters here before flying back to Washington.
Hill gave his relatively optimistic timeframe after meeting with China's chief negotiator to the talks, vice foreign minister Wu Dawei, for more than four hours in Beijing.
"I came up to talk with my counterpart about the preparations for the six-party talks and see how we'd like to proceed and we had very good discussions on that," Hill said.
The six-nation talks, first launched in 2003 in an effort to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions, broke down a year ago when Pyongyang walked out in protest at US financial sanctions against it.
North Korea then joined the global nuclear club by conducting its first atomic test on October 9.
But North Korea surprised the world again when it agreed on October 31 to return to the six-nation forum -- which involve the two Koreas, China, the United States, Japan and Russia.
That breakthrough came after a day of secret meetings in Beijing between Hill, China's Wu and North Korea's envoy to the talks, Kim Gye-Gwan.
In those meetings, North Korea and the United States agreed the sanctions issue would be discussed within the six-nation forum.
But negotiators have struggled to fix a date for a resumption, with China and the United States calling for the talks to start as soon as possible.
Hill said it was vital that once all sides returned to the talks that preparations were in place to ensure progress in the negotiations. "The most important thing is that we are well planned," he said.
To that end, Hill said meetings held on the sidelines of last weekend's Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders' summit in Hanoi had been constructive.
"This is part of the process of getting very well prepared," he said. Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told reporters on Tuesday that Wu and Hill had "in-depth exchanges" on the six-party forum, but declined to give specifics about a timeframe for resumption.
"We still believe the six-party talks are the most effective mechanism to solve the Korean peninsula nuclear issue," Jiang said.
South Korean media said Kim was also scheduled to be in Beijing on Tuesday to meet with Hill and Wu, however both the Chinese and US sides made no mention of the North Korean envoy's presence.
Hill and China's foreign ministry also brushed aside a report by South Korea's Yonhap news agency that Beijing had unfrozen some North Korean accounts in a Macau-based bank blacklisted by Washington.
The agency quoted a diplomatic source in Beijing as saying China unfroze some accounts of North Korea-based companies in Banco Delta Asia, apparently with the understanding of the United States.
Macau's Monetary Authority denied the report, while Hill said Wu had given him no indication during their meeting on Tuesday that the accounts had been unfrozen.