North Korea said Monday it was ready for talks on its nuclear weapons program even as South Korea warned the issue could escalate into a security crisis on their divided peninsula.
The pledge by North Korea's ceremonial head of state, Kim Yong Nam, to resolve the problem through dialogue was at odds with U.S. demands for an immediate suspension of the nuclear activity, which violates international agreements.
Moreover, it carried a condition: Kim told South Korean delegates who traveled to Pyongyang that talks were contingent on Washington's willingness to withdraw its "hostile policy" toward the North.
The remark alluded to long-standing North Korean accusations that Washington is plotting to undermine its communist system and even use U.S. troops stationed in South Korea as the vanguard of an invasion.
"If the United States is willing to withdraw its hostile policy toward the North, the North also is ready to resolve security concerns through dialogue," South Korean pool reports quoted Kim as saying.
Mindful of a 1994 crisis over an earlier North Korean nuclear program that nearly led to war, the chief South Korean delegate, Jeong Se-hyun, told Kim "the issue should not be allowed to create another security crisis on the Korean peninsula."
"Inter-Korean relations can advance smoothly only when the nuclear issue is resolved peacefully at an early date through dialogue," pool reports quoted Jeong, the South's unification minister, as saying.
South Korean President Kim Dae-jung is struggling to maintain the momentum of his "sunshine" policy of engaging North Korea, but prospects are not good in the near term. Political opponents have repeatedly accused the president, whose single five-year term ends in February, of placing too much trust in the North.
Although North Korea has taken recent steps to engage the outside world, analysts doubt the secretive country is willing to promptly open its most sensitive security areas to international nuclear inspectors.
Top U.S. envoys, who have said the nuclear program is a nonnegotiable issue, were in Tokyo and Moscow as part of a campaign to muster international pressure on North Korea to suspend its nuclear weapons program.
Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly challenged North Korean officials about it when he visited Pyongyang on Oct. 3-5, and to his surprise they admitted they had a uranium enrichment project.
"I know that there are discussions in many capitals on this issue," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Monday in Tajikistan during a tour of the region. "We are all studying what should be done next."
The United States, which is preparing for a possible war against Iraq, says it wants a peaceful resolution to the North Korean problem.
In Tokyo, Kelly said Washington has not yet decided to abandon a 1994 agreement with North Korea to control nuclear weapons development. Under that deal, which marked its eighth anniversary on Monday, the North promised to abandon its suspected nuclear weapons program in return for construction of two modern, light-water reactors and 500,000 tons of fuel oil a year until the reactors are completed.
In the talks with Kelly earlier this month, North Korea said it considered the so-called Agreed Framework invalid because the reactors were not expected to be completed by 2003 as promised.
But on Monday, North Korea's Pyongyang Radio urged the United States to honor its commitments under the deal, and said the most pressing issue was compensation for loss of electricity caused by the delay.
"Eight years after the Agreed Framework was adopted, the U.S. is still shifting around at the starting line," the radio said in a broadcast monitored by South Korea's Yonhap news agency.
"The framework is at crossroads — whether it should be scrapped or not — because of the delay in providing the light-water reactors," the radio said.
But Secretary of State Colin Powell said in Washington Sunday that the U.S. government considers the agreement effectively dead because of the North's secret nuclear weapons development.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has said he believes North Korea already has a "small number" of nuclear weapons.