BEIJING -- North Korea said it is ready to discuss, during meetings with six nations, the possibility of freezing its nuclear program and allowing inspections, diplomats said yesterday.
The talks begin today, with representatives of the United States, the two Koreas, China, Japan and Russia gathering at a government guesthouse in Beijing.
Two previous rounds of talks failed to settle the standoff, which flared in October 2002 when Washington said North Korea admitted running a secret nuclear weapons program in violation of a 1994 agreement.
On the eve of the new round, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda said North Korea appeared to be more cooperative, and he expressed hope for ''major progress."
''It seems North Korea is more actively trying to explain its policy to other countries this time," Hosoda said in Tokyo. ''The country has always demonstrated strong rejection to the others, but not this time."
A South Korean official said that, in preliminary discussions, ''each country's representatives agreed that the ultimate goal is nuclear dismantlement."
They agreed that ''discussions concerning a freeze accompanied by verification, as a first step toward nuclear dismantlement, should be continued at the main talks," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Impoverished North Korea wants economic aid in exchange for a nuclear freeze. But Washington says there should be no reward for abandoning a program North Korea should not have started in the first place.
Under a plan being discussed ahead of the talks, the United States would not give any assistance, but Japan and South Korea would provide aid in stages, a senior Bush administration official said in Washington.
The agreement was reached during discussions that began Monday on an agenda for the talks.
South Korea's chief delegate expressed hope for ''substantial progress," but the American negotiator was more pessimistic.
''There is no particular reason to be optimistic, but I've come prepared for serious discussions," said James Kelly, an assistant US secretary of state.
The talks will give North Korea ''a great opportunity to signal its commitment to a full-scale denuclearization," Kelly said. ''If and when they do, this will open all kinds of things, politically, economically and diplomatically."
North Korea has rejected US demands for a ''complete verifiable and irreversible dismantling" of its nuclear program, saying it needs a ''deterrent" against possible US attack.
South Korean delegate Lee Soo-hyuck said he would be promoting a three-stage plan that would give the North aid and a ''security guarantee" from Washington and its allies.
''We cannot bring a new proposal every time, but we plan to explain more specifically the three steps that we have been proposing," Lee said. ''We will seek understanding and support."
The six nations have agreed a nuclear freeze by North Korea should entail inspections as the first step toward dismantlement, Japan's Kyodo News service said, citing South Korean delegation sources.
China, which has taken on an unaccustomed role as peace broker by organizing the talks, appealed for patience.
''It is hard to avoid some difficulties, twists and turns, and even some setbacks in the process of resolving the nuclear issue," said Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wang Yi, quoted by the government's Xinhua News Agency.