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U.S. says N. Koreans cooperating in Nuclear talks

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WASHINGTON — Suddenly, the Bush administration is giving North Korea at least a passing grade in negotiations to stop its nuclear weapons program and suggesting the slow-moving talks to denuclearize the Korean peninsula may be making headway.

With Iran causing concern about its nuclear programs, the United States is eager to put out the fire on the Korean peninsula and may have found a way with economic inducements. Both countries have been branded part of an "axis of evil" by President Bush.

But before offering an upbeat assessment, the State Department had to disavow on Friday an assertion by a U.S. official that North Korea had threatened during the negotiations in China to test a nuclear weapon unless the United States accepted its conditions for a freeze.

The official, who would not permit disclosure of his name or job, said North Korea's stand could jeopardize the six-nation talks in Beijing.

Spreading gloom almost simultaneously, Iran announced it would resume building equipment essential for a nuclear weapons program.

Undersecretary of State John R. Bolton, who is in charge of the administration's efforts to slow the worldwide atomic arms race, told Congress on Thursday that Iran's move was a "thumb in the eye of the international community."

Secretary of State Colin Powell hinted earlier in the week that Iran could face U.N. economic sanctions if it did not prove that it has no nuclear weapons program.

At the State Department's daily press briefing on Friday, spokesman Adam Ereli disputed the anonymous U.S. official's assertion that North Korea had leveled a threat.

"Our view is that these have been constructive talks, that the proposals are getting serious consideration and that we have a good basis for moving forward," he said.

In Beijing, the negotiators for six nations are exchanging proposals that will be considered by decision-makers in their capitals after the three-day session, which ended Friday, Ereli said.

"The parties have been earnest in exploring the various proposals put forward," he said. "We expect this process to continue, following the closing of the talks tomorrow."

North Korea is asking for energy assistance in exchange for a freeze, and the United States is known to be receptive to having Japan and South Korea provide aid in stages if the nuclear weapons program is halted.

Also, President Bush has held out the offer of a promise not to attack North Korea.

The North Korean delegation, meanwhile, was taking a positive tone.

In a statement issued in Beijing, North Korea said its offer this week to freeze the program was a step toward dismantling it.

"There's been a lot written about the issue of a threat from the North Koreans to test," Ereli said. "There have been a variety of quotes in the press. I would say on the record that the remarks that are being reported were not phrased as a threat, No. 1. It was phrased as a statement that some in Pyongyang wanted to test a nuclear weapon."

Ereli added: "This is not something new. We've heard these sort of comments before. It was not phrased or given as an ultimatum, but rather, to the contrary, I think we came away from this discussion, from this long and involved and engaged discussion, with the firm view that the North Koreans are going to give our proposal very serious consideration."

After the current round "there needs to be period of reflection" before setting a date for the next round, the spokesman said.

Ereli said the United States remained committed to "denuclearization" of the Korean peninsula.

The talks include the United States, North Korea, China, Japan, South Korea and Russia.