US Secretary of State Colin Powell and North Korea's foreign minister discussed Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions yesterday, the highest-level bilateral meeting since a crisis over the North's atomic plans erupted almost two years ago.
Powell and Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun held a 20-minute scheduled discussion over mineral water on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum security talks in Jakarta.
"The secretary said there was an opportunity for concrete progress," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, reflecting signs of new-found flexibility by the US to end an impasse that has cast a shadow over the security of north Asia.
While North Korea put a positive spin on the talks, it stressed after the meeting that the two sides did not trust each other and stuck to its position that Washington should guarantee it would not attack and would reward the impoverished communist state if it freezes its programs.
"If the United States is of the position to improve the bilateral relations, the DPRK also will not regard the US as a permanent enemy," Paek said in a statement. DPRK -- the Democratic People's Republic of Korea -- is North Korea's official name.
The two officials last met over a cup of coffee at the ASEAN forum two years ago in Brunei in a much less formal encounter. That took place shortly before the nuclear crisis erupted in October 2002 when Washington said Pyongyang admitted to illegally developing nuclear arms.
Yesterday's discussion followed a third round of six-party talks to resolve the standoff last week in Beijing that included the most detailed US proposal to date in a sign of a real start to negotiations.
The meeting and proposal represent the most conciliatory US overtures to North Korea since President George W. Bush bracketed the Stalinist state part of an "axis of evil" with Iran and pre-war Iraq.
"As I mentioned earlier, both sides agreed in principle to establish trust which we are lacking. We agreed to that in principle, so the atmosphere at the meeting was good," North Korean Foreign Ministry official Chung Song-il told reporters.
But the two sides remain far apart because of a fundamental dispute over the extent of the suspected programs and the North's desire to have a deterrent to ensure its communist system endures, political analysts have said.
"The secretary emphasized the administration's proposals to move forward on dismantlement of North Korean nuclear programs," Boucher said of yesterday's meeting. "The discussion was useful to help clarify each side's proposal."
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