updated 1/28/2005 4:07:19 PM ET 2005-01-28T21:07:19

China has proposed holding working-level talks to pave the way for a fourth round of six-party discussions on ending North Korea’s nuclear arms programs, diplomatic sources said Friday.

The proposal was made as the international community is trying to persuade the reclusive communist state to abandon its nuclear weapons programs.

North Korea has joined the United States, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia for three rounds of nuclear talks since August 2003. China has played host to the negotiations.

Pyongyang boycotted a fourth round, originally set for last September, and has said it would watch how U.S. policy toward it shapes up before deciding whether to return to the talks.

Watching U.S. policy
“China proposed that we hold working-level talks to prepare for a fourth round of six-party talks in the near future,” a diplomatic source in Tokyo told Reuters.

China made the proposal on the sidelines of a tsunami aid summit in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, this month, sources said.

Some analysts believe the working-level talks could be held in mid-February and full-fledged six-party talks in early March.

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters the United States had not heard of any new proposal for working-level talks.

“The idea of having working-level talks has always been around. We haven’t heard anything new on that idea. We haven’t heard any scheduling of that idea or any indication from the Chinese that that is ready to go,” he said.

U.S. officials say communist North Korea may have more than eight nuclear weapons, and President Bush once branded the North as part of an “axis of evil” along with Iran and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

In return for scrapping its nuclear weapons program, Pyongyang demands security assurances from the United States as well as energy and other economic aid.

Coaxing Pyongyang
Another source said it remained unclear when the preparatory talks would be held but said the five other parties in the multilateral forum were positive about the proposal.

“But we have to confirm whether North Korea will actually take part in the talks,” he said.

The source said he believed China would not have made the proposal unless it had already received a positive response.

“Even if working-level talks were to be held, that would not necessarily mean full-scale six-party talks would resume any time soon,” he said.

He did not rule out the possibility of North Korea agreeing to take part in junior-level preparatory talks after U.S. President George Bush’s State of the Union address on Feb. 2.

“North Korea may want to use the working-level talks to check U.S. policy on North Korea’s nuclear development,” he said.

A South Korean government official said China had yet to persuade North Korea to come to the negotiating table.

“It’ll be all set if China persuades North Korea. ... China will probably start moving after President Bush’s State of the Union address,” he said.

Bush holds key
The South Korean government official said even working-level talks would be difficult to arrange because of the need to ensure the negotiations are substantive from the start — as with the previous such round in June last year.

Analysts in Tokyo said progress in talks would hinge on how the Bush administration wants to deal with Pyongyang.

“If the Bush administration adopts a hard-line policy and demands North Korea unilaterally abandon its nuclear program, North Korea will not come forward,” said Yasuhiko Yoshida, a Korea expert at Osaka University of Economics and Law.

The standoff began in October 2002 when the United States said North Korea had said it had a secret program based on highly enriched uranium as well as a plutonium program it had put on hold. Pyongyang later denied having a uranium project.

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