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Rice upbeat on N. Korea talks

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SEOUL, South Korea (CNN) -- U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says Washington and Seoul are very optimistic they can make some headway at six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program to be held this month.

But after meeting in Seoul Wednesday with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon on the last leg of her Asian tour, America's top diplomat admitted there was much work still ahead.

"We are very optimistic that our joint efforts to improve the security situation on the Korean peninsula could indeed bear fruit, although, of course, there is still much work to be done," Rice said at a news conference, according to Reuters.

"I actually think it's quite interesting that the North has responded by saying that, yes, it is not only coming back to the talks but it hopes to make progress."

After attending an initial round of talks to discuss dismantling its nuclear program, Pyongyang agreed to further talks last September. But it then dropped out, citing "hostile" U.S. policy.

But this weekend North Korea said it would return to the talks, due to be held the week of July 25, with South Korea, China, Russia, Japan and the United States also attending.

Negotiators from South Korea, Japan and the United States are due to meet on Thursday ahead of this month's talks.

On Tuesday, Rice said the talks would only be successful if Pyongyang agrees to give up nuclear weapons.

"What we really need is a strategic decision on the part of the North (Koreans) that they are indeed ready to give up their nuclear weapons," Rice said at a news conference with Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Macjimura.

China is scheduled to host the six-way talks later this month.

Restarting the talks has become more urgent after Pyongyang declared this year it had nuclear weapons, setting its neighbors and much of the rest of the world on edge.

"We are both hopeful that these talks will be successful. We talked about the importance of the North Koreans making a strategic choice and coming to the talks ready to negotiate seriously," Rice said.

Japanese officials echoed Rice's call, with Macjimura saying "concrete progress is necessary," and they expected North Korea "to make a serious and constructive response with the current nuclear standoff."

Pyongyang pulled out of its nuclear agreements in 2002, restarted a nuclear reactor, and kicked out U.N. inspectors.

A round of six-party talks last year achieved no substantial progress. In March, the United States threatened to take North Korea to the U.N. Security Council.

Explaining Pyongyang's change of stance Saturday, the KCNA report said: "The U.S. side clarified its official stand to recognize the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) as a sovereign state, not to invade it and hold bilateral talks within the framework of the six-party talks."

The report said the North Korean government "interpreted the U.S. side's expression of its stand as a retraction of its remark designating the former as an 'outpost of tyranny' and decided to return to the six-party talks."

Rice called North Korea one of six "outposts of tyranny" earlier this year. Bush administration officials have frequently assailed the nation's communist dictatorship and its leader, Kim Jong Il.

South Korea said on Tuesday it would give 500,000 tonnes of rice to the North to help battle a severe food shortage. (Full story)

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