Foreign Ministers Meet on N. Korea

SINGAPORE -- Ministers from six nations involved in nuclear talks with North Korea, including U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, held a rare meeting Wednesday that China said showed a "political will" to move the disarmament process forward.

In a break with U.S. policy, Rice joined "informal" talks with North Korea on the sidelines of a Southeast Asian forum and said afterwards that it had been a good meeting.

"The spirit was good because people believed we have made progress. There is also a sense of urgency about moving on and a sense that we can't afford to have another hiatus of several months," Rice told reporters after the talks.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said the six foreign ministers would meet again in Beijing for a more formal negotiating session, but no date had been set.

This would mark a new chapter in the six-party talks, as all previous negotiations had been at the envoy level and Wednesday's meeting was billed as an informal discussion rather than full-blown negotiations.

A senior official said Rice had been firm with North Korea, which tested a nuclear device in 2006, and said it must quickly agree on a mechanism to verify its nuclear weapons, as well as settle the issue of Japanese abductees.

Yang said the six parties should aim for early agreement on a so-called verification protocol being worked out to check claims Pyongyang made about its weapons-grade plutonium stockpile in a long-delayed accounting delivered last month.

Rice joined the foreign ministers from China, Russia, Japan, and the two Koreas at Wednesday's meeting -- the first such encounter since "six party" talks began in 2003 and at a time when Washington wants better ties with North Korea.

"I think this is quite significant," Yang said at the start of the talks. "It shows that the six parties have the political will to move forward the six-party process."

The verification protocol is a key issue in the coming weeks and a four-page draft of the document had been circulated. An agreement on the issue should be reached by mid-August at the latest, chief U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill told reporters traveling with Rice.

Meanwhile, journalists covering the discussions scuffled with Singapore police, highlighting tight security measures in the luxury hotel where the talks are being held.

The ministers posed for a family photo at the start of talks. During the meeting, Yang was flanked by Rice and Pak, who were seated alongside the other ministers in comfortable armchairs arranged in a circle.

The melee between journalists and police started when North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Ui-chun showed up to attend the informal meeting.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was decidedly testy when confronted by a video camera Wednesday.

"I thought Singaporeans are very polite people," Lavrov said. "Please turn off your camera, you irritate me."