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North Korea, U.S. at odds again as nuclear talks resume

BEIJING — Talks over how to end North Korea's nuclear weapons program resumed in Beijing on Tuesday, but the United States and North Korea showed few signs of settling a dispute over the peaceful uses of nuclear power that broke up previous negotiations.

Repeating the same demands that led to the collapse of talks five weeks ago, North Korea insisted Tuesday that it had the right to maintain a peaceful nuclear energy program after it dismantles its nuclear bombs and that the United States must acknowledge that right in advance.

While some analysts held out hope that the issue could be finessed so that the six nations participating in the negotiations could at least agree on a statement of principles for future discussions, several diplomats warned that even such an interim step seemed insurmountable in the current environment.

The standoff is a heavy burden for the Bush administration, which has failed to slow North Korea's nuclear program since it accused the country of violating a previous pact in 2002 and vowed to take a tougher line than the Clinton administration had.

The Stalinist North Korean government expelled U.N. weapons inspectors in 2002 and now says it has working nuclear bombs, which it says it needs to protect itself from the "hostile policy" of the United States.

Administration officials have put new emphasis on negotiating with the North and have relaxed earlier demands that the country disarm itself unilaterally before they would consider offering diplomatic or economic incentives.

But some analysts say they fear that North Korea does not intend to give up its weapons program, which its leaders view as a cornerstone of their security and a bargaining chip to demand economic aid for its ailing economy.

China is the host of the current talks, which include South Korea, Japan and Russia as well as the United States and North Korea, and are a continuation of a previous round of talks in early August that ended in frustration.

Although the United States and North Korea continued back-channel discussions during the intervening five-week period, they apparently did not bridge many differences.

"I can't say there has been much progress" during the recess, Christopher Hill, the chief American envoy to the talks, said in Beijing on Tuesday afternoon.