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Clinton encouraged on North Korean nuclear talks

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Friday that the United States is encouraged by signs that North Korea could return to stalled nuclear disarmament negotiations. Her spokesman said those talks could begin in coming weeks.

Clinton told reporters after meeting with South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan that two senior U.S. envoys now visiting Asia have been "quite heartened by the movement that we see" in efforts to restart six-nation negotiations meant to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear program.

"Ultimately, it's up to the North Koreans, but we are encouraged by signs of progress to return to the talks that we are seeing," Clinton said, Yu standing by her side after their working lunch at the State Department.

The North, which is believed to have enough weaponized plutonium to make at least six atomic bombs, quit disarmament negotiations last year and conducted a nuclear test, earning stricter U.N. sanctions.

Clinton, in her brief comments, provided no specific details about what encouraging signs she was seeing. But her spokesman, P.J. Crowley, later said that consultations between the North and the other negotiating countries — Russia, South Korea, the United States, Japan and China — indicate that North Korea may be getting close to making a decision and the talks could begin "in coming weeks or months."

Crowley also said that North Korea must act on its past pledges to abandon its nuclear program.

The State Department says North Korea's worsening economy could push it back to the talks but cautions that the North has not yet agreed to return.

Yu's Washington visit follows North Korea's threat to attack if U.S.-South Korean military drills happen next month.

It also comes as President Barack Obama's special envoys to North Korea, Stephen Bosworth and Sung Kim, visit Asia to discuss the North. In Beijing, Bosworth called for a quick resumption of the nuclear negotiations.

The North has demanded a lifting of sanctions and peace talks with the United States on formally ending the 1950-53 Korean War before it returns. Washington says the North must first come back to talks before those matters will be discussed.

South Korea and the United States, which maintains 28,500 troops in the South, plan to conduct annual military exercises starting March 8. The North sees the exercises as preparation for an invasion; the United States and South Korea say the maneuvers are purely defensive.

The two Koreas technically remain in a state of war because their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.