N. Korea ready to discuss nuke disarmament

North Korea expressed its readiness Thursday to discuss initial steps of its nuclear disarmament, raising hopes for the first tangible progress at international talks on Pyongyang's atomic weapons program since they began more than three years ago.

"We are prepared to discuss first-stage measures," the North's nuclear envoy Kim Kye Gwan said on arriving in Beijing for the six-nation negotiations set to start later Thursday.

Media reports have suggested the North may agree to freeze its main nuclear reactor and allow international inspectors in exchange for energy aid as a starting step to disarm.

Earlier Thursday, the main U.S. envoy said he sensed "there is a real desire to have progress" by the North Koreans at the talks.

Ahead of this week's round, the North had signaled it was satisfied with changes in the United States' attitude amid an apparent greater willingness on all sides to compromise on issues that deadlocked previous talks.

However, U.S. envoy Christopher Hill denied a report in a Japanese newspaper Thursday that the United States and North Korea had signed a memorandum during bilateral talks last month agreeing that Pyongyang's first steps toward denuclearization and U.S. energy support would begin simultaneously.

"We did not sign anything," Hill told reporters, but added he was hopeful the Beijing talks would lead to progress such as working groups to discuss technical issues.

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