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Kim: I want nuclear-free peninsula

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Kim has agreed to come back to six-nation talks on his nuclear program.

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SEOUL, South Korea (CNN) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has told a Chinese envoy he is committed to a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, as three nations huddle down to work out the plan for six-party talks later this month.

Kim said "the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula was the behest of President Kim Il Sung," his late father and the North's longtime former leader, the North's Korean Central News Agency reported on Wednesday.

According to the report, the reclusive leader said it was Pyongyang's "consistent stand to seek a negotiated peaceful solution of the nuclear issue," and he hoped "positive progress" would be made at the talks.

The comments came after Kim met with Chinese State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan, who is on a diplomatic mission to the North.

Negotiators from Japan, South Korea and the U.S. are gathering Thursday to coordinate strategy for talks this month aimed at pressuring North Korea to curb its nuclear ambitions.

Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill will meet the South's nuclear negotiator, Deputy Foreign Minister Song Min-soon, and Kenichiro Sasae, director of the Asia and Oceania Bureau at Japan's Foreign Ministry.

They will head their countries' delegations at the talks set to convene the week of July 25. China and Russia also will take part.

On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Washington and Seoul were very optimistic they could make some headway at the talks.

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, which will likely be hosted by China.

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 in Tokyo with Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Majimura.

A senior Russian official said on Wednesday that big breakthroughs should not be expected at the talks.

"We firmly expect to achieve progress and advance beyond agreements reached at ... previous talks," Interfax news agency quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Alexeyev as saying.

"However, after a long pause in talks, which lasted more than a year, it would be too optimistic to expect any radical breakthroughs."

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.

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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