N Korea offers talks to South
South Korea said Thursday North Korea had offered to hold high-level talks later this month, as the United States admitted verbal assurances that it has no plans to attack Pyongyang may not be enough to end the nuclear crisis.
The North's offer of four-day talks from January 21 came in response to a South Korean proposal for a cabinet-level meeting to discuss inter-Korean rapprochement and the nuclear issue.
"In accordance with time-old practices, it is highly likely that South Korea will accept the new date proposed by Pyongyang," a South Korean unification ministry official told AFP.
Unification Minister Jeong Se-Hyun said last week that South Korea would urge North Korea to scrap its nuclear weapons program at the talks.
The announcement came after an envoy for South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung said he had received backing for mediation attempts after meeting US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in Washington.
US Secretary of State Colin Powell also acknowledged that Washington may have to go beyond its previous verbal assurances that it has no plans to attack North Korea.
"We have made it clear we have no aggressive intent," Powell told The Washington Post. "Apparently, they want something more than a passing statement."
Asked whether there was a formula that offered more than President George W. Bush's repeated statements that the US will not invade, Powell replied: "You've just bounded a problem. That's what diplomacy is about."
Kim's national security advisor, Yim Sung-Joon, said he conveyed South Korea's plans to take the initiative to resolve the standoff in talks with Rumsfeld and US counterpart Condoleezza Rice Wednesday.
"The United States expressed its support and understanding to this proposal," Yim was quoted as saying in Washington by Yonhap news agency.
Kim steps down on February 25 when he will be replaced by his political soulmate Roh Moo-Hyun.
Roh's Millennium Democratic Party (MDP) urged Pyongyang Thursday to accept a US offer for talks.
"North Korea should immediately declare dismantling of its nuclear weapons program and respond to the US proposition to talks for the purpose of stabilising peace on the Korean Peninsula and co-existence and co-prosperity," MDP spokesman Moon Seok-Ho said.
While the United States has offered to talk to North Korea over the nuclear issue, US officials are adamant they will not offer concessions and have reiterated that North Korea must close down its nuclear weapons programs.
"There's nothing that we are going to extend to North Korea to get them to go back to meet fundamental obligations that they undertook," US Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton said in Manila Thursday.
"We are certainly prepared to talk to the North Koreans to explain what their obligations are, how they can can come back to compliance with them."
South Korea has been floating a compromise deal after consulting China and Russia, the two countries deemed to be closest to the isolated regime in Pyongyang.
Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said Russia could play a key role in defusing the crisis as he headed to Moscow for talks with President Vladimir Putin.
"As far as I understand, Russia shares Japan's view that easing tensions on the Korean Peninsula is absolutely essential," he told the Izvestia daily.
"Russia traditionally has had close relations with North Korea, and we hope that it can play a vital role in helping regulate the situation."
The issue also featured as Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan met his French counterpart Dominique de Villepin in Beijing.
"Tang stressed that at this stage it's most important to prevent further escalation of the situation and the key is to break the stalemate between the US and DPRK (North Korea)," said Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue.
Tense US-North Korean relations took a turn for the worse in October when Washington said Pyongyang had admitted running a secret enriched uranium nuclear weapons program in violation of a 1994 agreement.
Despite North Korea's denials the US suspended fuel aid to the energy-starved country. Pyongyang responded last month by reactivating the Yongbyon plutonium producing nuclear complex which had been mothballed and kept under UN observation since the 1994 deal.