WASHINGTON (AP) _ The United States welcomed North Korea's pledge to refrain from long-range missile tests and said it looked forward to holding talks soon on the issue with the communist state.

North Korea promised to maintain a moratorium on the tests two days after the United States lifted some economic sanctions against it, saying the U.S. action will facilitate efforts to set up high-level talks on improving ties.

``We welcome the North Korean statement and the continued restraint by Pyongyang,'' State Department spokesman Phil Reeker said Wednesday. ``And we look forward to conducting bilateral missile talks soon to address the range of issues related to the North Korean missile program.''

The North's statement follows a historic summit last week between South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, who pledged to renounce hostilities, promote unification and arrange reunions of separated families.

Pyongyang agreed in September not to test-fire a new missile as long as talks continued with Washington on improving ties.

The two sides had preparatory talks in Rome and Reeker said Wednesday that the United States ``expects to conduct some bilateral missile talks soon to address the range of issues.''

North Korea planned to send a high-level official to Washington early this year, but the visit was put on hold.

After half a century of embargo, Washington on Monday said it would open trade with North Korea in nonmilitary goods, open air travel and shipping routes, and ease restrictions on U.S. investment in North Korea.

Marking a beginning of newly liberalized trade, Coca-Cola announced it was sending several hundred cases of drinks into North Korea on Thursday.