BEIJING - Disarmament talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons program will resume next week, China said Monday, announcing an apparent end to Pyongyang's 13-month-old boycott of the negotiations over U.S. financial sanctions.
Diplomats have been trying to set a date since North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's government agreed to return to the six-nation talks, a breakthrough that followed the communist regime's Oct. 9 test of a nuclear bomb.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said in a one-sentence statement on his ministry's Web site that the talks, which include the United States, would resume in Beijing on Dec. 18.
Japan's prime minister said in Tokyo that North Korea must be urged "to take concrete steps" to disarm.
"At the six-party talks, we must push for North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons a step at a time," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said.
Russia and South Korea also are participating in the talks.
Tokyo plans to bring up the lingering issue of North Korea's abduction of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and '80s, said Japan's chief Cabinet secretary, Yasuhisa Shiozaki.
North Korea's main official newspaper said Tokyo shouldn't return to the talks, criticizing a crackdown on a pro-Pyongyang group of ethnic Koreans in Japan over its suspected role in the North's weapons programs.
"Japan is nothing but an impostor, not qualified to take part in the six-party talks," the newspaper Rodong Sinmun said.
"Even if they do come to the six-party talks, there will be nothing useful, with them making it difficult to solve the issue and wasting time by bringing to the table irrelevant issues."
The crackdown on the Korean group, Chongryon, "is a tactic to cast a shadow on resuming the six-party talks by intentionally provoking us," the newspaper said.
North Korea frequently issues bellicose statements about Japan and other countries and Monday's criticism of Tokyo was not expected to have any bearing on the negotiations.
Tokyo already has angered Pyongyang by barring North Korean citizens, goods and ships from Japanese ports following the nuclear test.
South Korea government welcomed Monday's announcement of renewed talks and said it expects progress.
"The government expects substantial progress will be made at this round of talks for a resolution of the North Korea nuclear issue and will continue to closely cooperate with related countries for this," South Korea's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
The head of the ministry's task force on the North Korean nuclear issue, Lee Yong-joon, declined to give specifics when asked what "substantial progress" would mean.
Lee said participants would aim for progress "in at least parts" of a Sept. 19, 2005, joint declaration in which the North agreed to abandon its nuclear development in exchange for aid and security guarantees.
Last month, the United States offered North Korea details about the kind of economic and energy assistance the North would receive in exchange for shutting down its nuclear arms facilities, but it was not clear whether the communist country has made specific promises about the outcome of the new talks.
Russia's Foreign Ministry also issued a statement welcoming the decision to restart the talks. It said the Russian delegation would "make all efforts" toward progress in the negotiations with a goal to "guaranteeing the nuclear-free status of the Korean peninsula and the normalization of the situation in the region."