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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S., North Korea Hold Direct Nuclear Talks

BEIJING -- The United States and North Korea held direct talks in a formal diplomatic setting for the first time in months Wednesday, meeting for 30 minutes on the sideline of a six-nation summit designed to resolve the standoff over Pyongyang's nuclear program.

The South Korean official who confirmed the meeting took place said the North appeared "willing to resolve the nuclear issue through dialogue."

The meeting was the first sign of progress in six-nation talks designed to resolve the disagreement over the North's nuclear program -- and to ensure security for the East Asian region. China, Russia, Japan and South Korea are also participating in the three days of talks, which began Wednesday.

The half-hour U.S.-North Korean meeting was confirmed by Wie Sung-rak, director-general of the South Korean Foreign Ministry's North American Affairs Bureau. It came hours after the North Korean government reiterated its demand for a nonaggression treaty.

"The U.S. side made comments about easing North Korea's security concerns, but I cannot give you any more details," Wie said. "From what North Koreans said during the meeting, we could read that North Korea is willing to resolve the nuclear issue through dialogue."

The contact between the delegations ended a diplomatic drought between the two nations, at odds over the nuclear program and U.S. demands that it cease immediately. Pyongyang demands guarantees of security and economic aid as conditions for doing so.

Both sides could benefit if a sturdy channel of communication were re-established -- even if it did not lead to an immediate resolution of the nuclear dispute. Mere agreement to keep talking regularly would be a degree of success.

The North Korean government had long demanded one-on-one talks with the United States, but dropped its objections to the multilateral arrangement after Beijing -- a longtime Pyongyang ally and communist neighbor -- agreed to host it. He had no information about whether any breakthroughs were made. But he said the delegation leaders -- U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly and North Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Kim Yong Il -- took part.

"We hope the contacts between the [U.S. and North Korean] delegations will continue," Alexander Losyukov, the Russian deputy foreign minister and head of his country's delegation, told Itar-Tass. But he stopped short of predicting progress.

"The sides have advanced a number of preliminary conditions which block the development of the talks," Losyukov said without elaborating, Itar-Tass reported. He said North Korea declared it wishes to be nuclear-free but expressed concern about "menaces from the U.S."

North Korea repeated its demand for the nonaggression pact from the South's key ally -- the United States -- saying it would not give up its "nuclear deterrent force" for anything less than that -- but the United States refused.

The United States should "clarify its will to make a switchover in its hostile policy toward [North Korea] and conclude a nonaggression treaty with it," Rodong Sinmun, the North's official newspaper, said in a commentary carried by KCNA, the North's official news agency.

The United States spurned the North Korean demand for a bilateral nonagression treaty, Japan's Kyodo news agency reported, quoting Japanese government sources. The United States' response to previous North Korean demands for a bilateral nonagression treaty has been that Pyongyang must first abandon its nuclear program.

U.S. officials say they believe North Korea has one or two nuclear weapons, and experts believe it could produce five to six more in a few months. The North has withdrawn from key international agreements in recent months, including the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The discussions are expected to continue until Friday as part of a process experts say may be drawn-out -- but is inching in the right direction.

"The talks will lay the foundation for the next talks," said Li Dunqiu, secretary-general of the Chinese Society for the Study of Korean History. "Mistrust between the two sides cannot be dispelled within a single negotiation."

The participants' interests go beyond simply wanting to keep the isolated communist North from becoming a nuclear threat. South Korea wants to clear an obstruction from its policy of reconciliation with Pyongyang. China hopes to avoid being dragged into a conflict between its longtime ally, North Korea, and a vital trading partner, the United States. The North, faced with economic collapse, wants security guarantees and more food and humanitarian aid.

Japan wants progress on the issue of Japanese citizens kidnapped by the North during the Cold War, and its delegation brought up that issue in the first session -- despite warnings by North Korea not to.