BEIJING (AFP) — China expressed confidence that the drive to end North Korea's nuclear programmes would pick up momentum, as it announced disarmament talks would resume on Thursday after a nine-month break.
"We are looking forward to the positive achievements of this meeting of the heads of delegations, so as to promote the ushering of a new stage of the six-party talks process," foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang said Tuesday.
China is the host of the six-nation talks, which began in 2003 with the aim of convincing the North to abandon its nuclear activities.
The talks had not been held for nine months amid delays in securing from the reclusive North Korean regime a declaration of its nuclear activities as agreed in a landmark six-nation deal reached last year.
However North Korea, which conducted an atomic test in 2006, last month finally delivered the declaration, clearing the way for progress in the tortuous negotiations.
In a dramatic gesture intended to stress its commitment to disarmament, Kim Jong-Il's regime also blew up the cooling tower at its plutonium-producing Yongbyon complex.
US nuclear envoy Christopher Hill said Tuesday this week's talks would focus on ways to verify the North's declaration.
"The verification is the most important thing. We want to speed up the rate of disablement (of its nuclear activities)," Hill said in Beijing after holding talks with his North Korean counterpart.
"Verification will probably take longer than just a few days, it will be weeks, and maybe months," he told reporters.
Leaders of the Group of Eight nations meanwhile urged North Korea to abandon nuclear weapons and cooperate in the verification.
The G8, meeting in northern Japan, welcomed North Korea's declaration, saying in a statement it was "long overdue."
Beijing's Qin said that working-level meetings on denuclearisation of the North, as well as economic and energy aid, would also be held during the talks, which involve the United States, Japan, Russia and the two Koreas, as well as China.
The communist North last week said it could not go ahead with the next stage of the six-nation disarmament deal until other parties speed up their promised energy aid.
Under the current second phase of the deal, the North should get energy aid equal to one million tons of fuel oil and the lifting of some US sanctions, in return for disabling Yongbyon and documenting its nuclear activities.
In response to the declaration, the United States has eased some trade sanctions and moved towards taking the North off its list of state sponsors of terrorism.
The third and final phase of the disarmament deal calls for the North to permanently dismantle its atomic plants and hand over all nuclear material and weaponry.
In exchange it would win diplomatic ties with the United States and Japan, and a formal peace pact following the 1950-53 Korean War.
Qin said the meeting of the heads of delegation was tentatively expected to last three days, but the length of the talks would depend on the progress made.
"Whether a joint statement or other kinds of documents shall be issued will be decided by the aspiration of the six parties and the progress of the talks," he said.
Earlier Tuesday, South Korea's chief negotiator Kim Sook told reporters in Seoul that he expected the round of talks to focus on evaluating the nuclear declaration and establishing a system to verify it.
Then the talks would look at how to complete phase two of the disarmament accord, and on starting the final phase.
"I will be in consultation with each country to secure an important bridgehead for achieving the goal that North Korea should eventually give up its nuclear weapons programmes," Kim told reporters.
Some negotiators fear the North may try to keep existing nuclear weapons despite scrapping its plutonium production, South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak said over the weekend.
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