updated 6/7/2005 4:06:50 PM ET 2005-06-07T20:06:50

North Korea has told the United States it is willing to resume six-party negotiations on its nuclear weapons program, the Bush administration said Tuesday, and a Chinese official said that the talks could take place within the next few weeks.

Meeting with American diplomats Monday at the North Korean mission to the United Nations in New York, “the North Koreans said they would return but did not give us a time,” said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.

However, China's U.N. ambassador, Wang Guangya, said that the talks are likely to resume in the next few weeks in Beijing.

Wang told reporters the talks are "the best way" to resolve the nuclear standoff and said he is hopeful progress will be made.

Beijing is one of the participants in the talks, and has played host to previous rounds.

Year-long pause
The multilateral talks — involving North and South Korea, the United States, China, Japan and Russia — have been stalled since last June. Since then, North Korea declared it has nuclear weapons, claiming they are a deterrent against a possible attack by the United States.

The unexpected turnabout could turn out to be a significant step toward de-nuclearizing the Korean peninsula, but that would depend on the outcome of resumed negotiations.

N. Korea’s arsenal

Simultaneously, the administration withdrew a threat to try to punish the North Koreans soon with U.N. sanctions.

The U.S. position had been to call on North Korea to return at an early date without any preconditions.

U.S. softens tone on sanctions
In a conciliatory move, meanwhile, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said in Bangkok, Thailand, that no deadline had been set to bring the dispute to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions against North Korea.

Rumsfeld’s statement nullified one by a senior defense official traveling with him. That official had said earlier that there could be a decision on going to the United Nations within weeks.

U.S. chances of punishing North Korea with economic or political sanctions would not be great, in any event, since China, which opposes sanctions generally, could veto a U.S. motion.

The insular North Korean government, meanwhile, has denounced sanctions as tantamount to a declaration of war.

China says talks imminent
Wang welcomed the announcement in Washington of the resumption of the talks following a meeting in New York on Monday between senior North Korean diplomats and State Department officials.

"That's good," he said. "I'm not surprised. Ever since last year when they had the last session my government has always been working for the resumption because we always believed that these talks of the six-party track is the best way."

Asked when the talks will resume, he replied, "I think that it will be pretty soon. All sides are working on this."

Did pretty soon mean within a month?

"I think it's in the next few weeks," Wang said.

Did that mean before the end of June?

"It will be better, yes," he replied.

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