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U.S., N. Korea Meet in Person For First Time in Four Months

By Joseph Kahn

The New York Times -- BEIJING

The United States and North Korea had their first face-to-face meeting in four months here Wednesday afternoon as part of six-nation negotiations on how to end North Korea’s nuclear program, but diplomats downplayed prospects for an early breakthrough.

James A. Kelly, assistant secretary of state, and Kim Yong Il, North Korea’s deputy foreign minister, met together on the sidelines of formal discussions, breaking a freeze on direct dialogue that began after a stormy meeting in April in which North Korea warned that it was moving quickly to develop and deploy nuclear arms.

The Bush administration had insisted for months that it would only hold talks with North Korea in a multilateral setting because, it argued, only collective pressure would persuade North Korea to dismantle it nuclear program. It got its way when North Korea dropped its insistence on direct talks and agreed, after extensive efforts by China, to hold unusual simultaneous negotiations with China, Japan, South Korea and Russia as well as the United States.

Though Bush administration officials had not ruled out talking privately with the North Koreans during a broader meeting, the fact that Kelly and Kim met on the first day was seen as a sign of modest flexibility on the U.S. side.

China has taken an unusually active role in trying to find common ground between the entrenched positions of the United States and North Korea. Beijing used shuttle diplomacy to arrange the talks, bringing the Americans and the North Koreans to the table along with the Russians, South Koreans and Japanese.

At the minimum, China hopes to see the United States and North Korea commit to keep talking, and it used the first day of talks to begin pressing the participants to agree on language for a multiparty declaration that would provide a framework for future negotiations, said a foreign policy expert who has close ties to the Chinese foreign ministry.