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Handshakes and smiles at North Korea meeting

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

South Korea's Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, China's Foreign Minister Yang Jeichi, and North Korea's Foreign Minister Pak Ui-chun (L-R) pose before a meeting between foreign ministers of the six party nations and Rice on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum in Singapore July 23, 2008. REUTERS/Vivek Prakash

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 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.

China’s 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.

In a symbolic gesture of better relations with North Korea, Rice made a point of shaking hands both at the beginning and end of the meeting with North Korea’s Pak Ui-chun, and smiled broadly at him and other ministers as the meeting began.

However, a senior official said Rice had also 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.

“The parties all agreed that it is important to achieve early, comprehensive, balanced and verifiable implementation of the second-phase actions, including reaching early agreements on the verification protocol,” he said.

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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 the North.

“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 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.

Yang said at the start: “We have made major headway” in the process of getting North Korea to dismantle a suspected nuclear weapons program in exchange for aid and diplomatic rewards.

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.

However, the verification procedure itself, which includes on-site inspections in North Korea, could take months to implement, possibly stretching into the next U.S. administration after Bush leaves office in January 2009.

The North Korean delegation’s spokesman, Ri Dong-il, told reporters on Wednesday that significant progress was made after Pyongyang blew up the cooling tower of its Soviet-era nuclear plant in Yongbyon and Washington took steps to lift some of its sanctions.

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“What’s important is for the U.S. to fundamentally and entirely withdraw its hostile policy,” he said.

After North Korea presented the account of its nuclear weapons program in June, a thaw of ties began with President George W. Bush launching a 45-day process to remove Pyongyang from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Wednesday’s meeting came at a time when the Bush administration was tweaking its policy towards North Korea.

“I thought the atmosphere was really good,” Rice said, although senior officials made clear it was too early to talk of a “turning point” in relations between the two countries.

Bush branded North Korea as part of an “axis of evil” together with Iraq and Iran after the September 11, 2001 attacks, but the North is slowly moving away from that rogue status and Washington has slightly eased some sanctions.

Additional reporting by Melanie Lee in Singapore and Jack Kim in Seoul; Editing by Bill Tarrant