U.S. Envoy: Energy Aid to North Korea Might Resume If Nuke Issue Resolved

North Korea might get energy aid from the United States and other countries if it resolves concerns over its nuclear weapons development, a top U.S. envoy said Monday after meeting South Korea's president-elect.

Assistant U.S. Secretary of State James Kelly appeared to be offering an incentive to North Korea to give up its nuclear programs, though he did not say whether his comment represented a change in U.S. policy.

U.S. officials have previously said they would not reward North Korea for abandoning its nuclear programs, and that discussions of aid and better ties can only follow steps to dismantle those programs.

"Once we get beyond nuclear weapons, there may be opportunities with the U.S., with private investors, with other countries to help North Korea in the energy area," Kelly said at a news conference in Seoul.

In Moscow, North Korean Ambassador Pak Ui Chun said Pyongyang might allow the United States to verify it doesn't have a nuclear weapons program "if the United States drops its hostile policy and nuclear threats" toward the North, according to the Russian news agencies Interfax and ITAR-Tass.

Pak spoke at a news conference for Russian journalists, and other reporters were not allowed to attend. He warned that his nation would view sanctions against North Korea as a "declaration of war."

"That should be understood literally," he said.

North Korea insisted Sunday that it never admitted having a secret nuclear program, sending another conflicting signal in the escalating crisis over its alleged plans to build nuclear weapons.

In October, the United States said North Korea had acknowledged having a weapons program. That announcement touched off the latest standoff, which led to North Korea's decision last week to withdraw from the landmark Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

North Korea on Monday defended its withdrawal from treaty, saying the global accord exposed the country to the "constant nuclear threat" by the United States, the state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun said.

"A military option is not a monopoly of the United States," the paper said, warning that North Korea would strike back if attacked.

Pak, the ambassador to Russia, said "one of the main reasons" North Korea withdrew from the treaty was that the United States is using the the International Atomic Energy Agency, which oversees the accord.

The IAEA "should stop acting like an American tool, and the United States must stop attempts to use the IAEA as an instrument of pressuring" Pyongyang, Pak said at a news conference for Russian journalists, according to Interfax and ITAR-Tass.

Concerning Kelly's comments on energy aid, Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korea studies at Dongguk University in Seoul said the Bush administration seemed divided over how to deal with North Korea, with some officials espousing dialogue and others opposing it.

"Fundamentally, Kelly's comments are not really new since they still carry the condition that North Korea must first give up its nuclear programs," Koh said.

In Seoul, Kelly met President-elect Roh Moo-hyun, who said the North's nuclear development was unacceptable and that the dispute must be resolved through dialogue. The two countries are seeking a common policy approach to North Korea, with the South favoring a softer line.

Kelly said the United States was willing to talk to North Korea "about their response to the international community" on the nuclear issue. But he suggested that Washington, which is trying to downplay the dispute as it considers a possible war against Iraq, was willing to wait.

"I think we're just going to wait to see," said Kelly, who will travel Tuesday to China, as well as Singapore, Indonesia and Japan.

The United States believes North Korea has one or two nuclear weapons and could make several more within six months if it extracts weapons-grade plutonium from spent fuel rods at a reprocessing plant.

In its October announcement, the United States said the North had admitted to having an atomic weapons program in violation of a 1994 accord, under which Pyongyang pledged to freeze operations at its nuclear facilities in exchange for energy supplies.

In response to the admission, the United States suspended fuel shipments, and the North expelled U.N. inspectors and said it reactivate its Yongbyon nuclear facilities.

After announcing its withdrawal from the nuclear arms control treaty Friday, North Korea ratcheted up tensions even further by suggesting it might resume missile testing.

But North Korean Deputy U.N. Ambassador Han Song Ryol told New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, that the country had no intention of building nuclear bombs.

Kelly said the North Korean envoys did not cover any new ground in the talks with Richardson.

"It was a little disappointing, because we really hadn't heard anything from the North Koreans speaking to him that we hadn't heard in their public pronouncements before that," he said.

The threat of new missile tests came from the North's ambassador to China, Choe Jin Su, who said tests could resume if U.S. relations don't improve.

A new test would be the first since 1998, when North Korea shot a missile over Japan into the Pacific. The following year, Pyongyang later announced a test moratorium.