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SEOUL — The top U.S. negotiator for nuclear talks with North Korea downplayed Tuesday’s conditional overture by Kim Jong Il, saying instead the reclusive regime simply should return to the six-party talks.

U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Christopher Hill made the comments at a Tuesday morning breakfast forum for the alumni association of the Hankuk Unversity of Foreign Studies in Seoul, Korean media reported.

“Every day we have signs that either the DPRK does not want to attend the talks, wants to attend the talks, does not want to without conditions, wants to with conditions,” Hill said, using the acronym for the North’s official name, Yonhap news agency reported. “Frankly, it’s a little hard to keep track.”

Earlier Tuesday, the North’s official Korea Central News Agency released a statement attributed directly to Kim that said the country would return to the six-party talks if certain conditions were met. Among those conditions were a “mature” and “sincere” approach by the United States, KCNA said.

Kim made the remarks to a group of visiting Chinese diplomats, KCNA reported. Tuesday’s statement was the first attributed to the reclusive dictator since his Feb. 10 pronouncement that North Korea possessed nuclear weapons and was stepping back from the six-party talks.

North Korea, the United States, South Korea, China, Japan and Russia have met three times since 2003 to break the deadlock over the North’s nuclear program, but little progress has been made. The North refused to participate in a fourth meeting scheduled for September.

“We will go the negotiating table any time if there are mature conditions for the six-party talks thanks to the concerted efforts of the parties concerned in the future,” KCNA quoted Kim as saying, adding that the North Korean leader expressed hope the United States would demonstrate trustworthiness, sincerity and movement. KCNA prints English translations of its articles on several Web sites.

The North repeatedly has asked for economic aid in return for dropping its nuclear program; the United States wants the weapons program abandoned without conditions.

Estimates vary on how many — if any — nuclear weapons the North actually possesses. According to a New York Daily News story Sunday, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency believes the North has manufactured from 12 to 15 weapons of varying capacity. At the other end of the spectrum, the CIA reportedly believes the North has two or three nuclear weapons.


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