BEIJING -- North Korea took a tough stand Wednesday during talks with the United States, reportedly insisting Washington normalize relations and remove all atomic threats before it would give up nuclear weapons.
For its part, the United States stood by an aid-for-disarmament offer the North rejects as unfair.
South Korea's envoy characterized it as a "useful talk, where it became clear what [the sides[ had in common and what [the] differences were."
"It remains to be seen over time whether prospects are bright or not," deputy foreign minister Song Min-soon told reporters.
But the stances suggested negotiators could have difficult work ahead despite vows to make progress in talks that resumed Tuesday after a 13-month gap.
North Korea said the United States must abandon plans to topple its communist regime and instead establish mechanisms for peaceful coexistence, South Korea's Yonhap news agency said, citing a source close to the meetings in the Chinese capital.
The comments were reportedly made by the head of the North Korean delegation, Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan, at the start of the second day of talks on the North's nuclear program. Participants in the talks are the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia.
On Thursday, Kim and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill held their third one-on-one meeting ahead of a planned session including all the heads of delegations at the six-nation talks, the U.S. Embassy said. No details of the meeting were immediately available.
The increased contacts between the Americans and North Koreans are a change from the previous three rounds of nuclear talks, where Washington had mostly shunned direct contact with the communist nation.
Washington has said it recognizes North Korea's sovereignty and has no intention of attacking the country. But the North accused Washington of hostility after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in January called North Korea one of the world's "outposts of tyranny."
The North also raised the issue of what it claims is an alleged U.S. nuclear arsenal that could be used against the North, a senior American official said.
Both Washington and Seoul deny any U.S. nuclear weapons are in the South, and South Korea earlier raised the possibility of opening South Korean and U.S. bases for some form of verification by the North.
For its part, the United States "stood behind" a 2004 offer to give the North a security guarantee and economic and energy aid in return for a nuclear-free peninsula, the official said. The U.S. offer requires the North help dismantle its nuclear program and allow monitoring before any aid is given.
North Korea complained the proposal, made last June, was unrealistic, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the talks are still in progress. The North says the proposal requires too much before awarding any U.S. aid.
The nuclear standoff began in late 2002, when U.S. officials accused North Korea of running a secret uranium enrichment program.
Since then, the North has pulled out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and taken steps that would let it harvest more radioactive material for bombs from its plutonium program.
In February, the North claimed it had nuclear weapons, which many experts believe to be the case despite a lack of any known nuclear tests that would confirm the existence of an arsenal.
Three earlier rounds of talks -- the last in June 2004 -- produced no breakthroughs.
This time, the envoys have publicly promised to make every effort to produce progress and have set no ending date for the talks, unlike previous rounds that finished after several days. Hill, joked this week that he packed extra clothes for a lengthy stay in Beijing.
Hill called on the North on Wednesday to dismantle its nuclear weapons.
"Here we are in the 21st century," he told reporters. "There is no reason why anyone should build up a nuclear arsenal."
American and North Korean envoys planned to meet one-on-one Thursday, U.S. officials said. They held two similar meetings earlier this week.
Also Thursday, China's Foreign Ministry plans to host a lunch for envoys from all six governments in an apparent effort to maintain a cordial tone after earlier rounds of talks in which the atmosphere was often strained.