U.N. Envoy Says Standoff With North Korea `Ominous' but Likely Solvable

An envoy dispatched to North Korea by the United Nations said Saturday he saw an "ominous risk" in the country's nuclear standoff with the United States but expressed optimism that it could be resolved if the two sides talk.

"The problem is a breakdown of trust and communication," said Canadian Maurice Strong, sent to Pyongyang this week by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.

He returned to Beijing on Saturday after four days of what he called "very extensive discussions" with top officials, including North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun.

"It is encouraging that both sides at this stage -- the main antagonists to the crisis -- are saying things that are very close to what the other side is demanding," Strong told reporters at Beijing's Capital Airport. "Yet they're talking past each other rather than to each other."

He added: "There's a serious and ominous risk that this crisis could escalate. And if it does, it could escalate in my view unnecessarily."

Strong was the latest envoy to travel to Pyongyang in hopes of soothing a dispute that began in October, when the United States said Pyongyang had admitted to having a secret nuclear program. Washington suspended fuel shipments, and North Korea responded by expelling U.N. nuclear inspectors and said it had reactivated nuclear facilities frozen since 1994.

Diplomatic efforts have grown more intensive since earlier this month, when North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. It has threatened to resume its missile tests and reprocess spent fuel rods from its nuclear reactor, a possible step toward making nuclear arms.

But Strong said North Korea, if it is approached in a way it deems acceptable, was willing to make concessions, allow nuclear inspections, even renounce "any desire or intention to acquire nuclear weapons."

"The Democratic People's Republic does have a very strong view of its position. It feels it has been unjustly treated," Strong said, using North Korea's formal name.

"What the North Koreans are saying is that they want to resolve it peacefully, but they're also saying they are determined to go to war if that is required for their security and the integrity of their nation," he said.

Strong also underscored the importance of separating political issues from humanitarian aid for North Korea, whose impoverished population is chronically underfed.

"We cannot make the children, the ill people, the old people victims of this political crisis," Strong said.

Strong would not say if he met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.