• Kyodo

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The United States is ready to hold another round of talks with North Korea and China over Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions — but upholds its position that these negotiations should later expand into five-way talks involving Japan and South Korea, a senior U.S. administration official said Wednesday.

“I don’t think that we had ever ruled it out,” said John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, commenting on the prospect of more trilateral talks.

An initial round of negotiations was held in Beijing in April.

While Washington has since demanded that the next round of talks include Japan and South Korea, no multilateral talks have been held due to Pyongyang’s reluctance to include more countries.

“If there is a way to start at three and go to five, we are open to suggestions on it,” Bolton said during an interview with Kyodo News and other Japanese news organizations.

According to media reports in South Korea on Thursday, North Korea has voiced willingness to hold five-way talks after discussions are held with the U.S. and China.

Bolton stated that any multilateral talks on Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program should take place as soon as possible, hopefully in August, due to the severity of the issue.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said earlier in the day he expects to see diplomatic developments “in the very near future” over the nuclear standoff.

“The diplomatic track is alive and well, and I expect to see some developments along that track in the very near future,” Powell told reporters.

The crisis erupted in October, when North Korea told U.S. officials in Pyongyang that it had a secret program to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons.

Since the China-brokered three-way talks took place in April, Washington and Pyongyang have been unable to agree on the format for any continuation.

North Korea insists it will speak only to the U.S., while Washington is urging Pyongyang to accept requests by Japan and South Korea that they also be included in the talks.

Bolton reiterated the U.S. policy of rejecting separate bilateral discussions with North Korea on the sidelines of the five-way talks.

Tensions between the U.S. and North Korea are mounting, with U.N.-based North Korean diplomats having told the U.S. last week that Pyongyang has finished reprocessing all of the 8,000 spent fuel rods stored at its Yongbyon nuclear complex.

But Bolton was skeptical about this claim.

“We have our own measures for judging that, and that is not what we judge at this point,” he said.

Bolton also voiced concern over North Korea’s efforts to develop a ballistic missile with greater range and accuracy.

“That brings into threat of attack by nuclear, biological and chemical weapons other countries within whatever the range of the missile is, and that particularly is Japan,” he said.

Fukuda voices hope

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda said Thursday that Japan believes a multilateral meeting on North Korea’s nuclear program will be held in the near future, echoing views voiced by U.S. officials.

“We believe that (countries concerned) are working to realize (such a meeting),” Fukuda told a regularly scheduled news conference.

He said Japan still hopes to effect five-nation talks featuring the participation of Japan, the United States, South Korea, China and North Korea. “We can have more thorough discussions by having Japan and South Korea — the countries that bear the most relevance (in the matter),” he said.

At the same time, however, Fukuda indicated that initial trilateral negotiations without Japan and South Korea would be an acceptable step toward five-way talks, as suggested by John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, in Washington on Wednesday.