SEOUL, South Korea – In an apparent swipe at the United States, a North Korean delegation arriving for talks in South Korea said Tuesday that the two sides should resist "outside pressure" amid concerns over the North's nuclear weapons development.
The four-day talks are supposed to promote North-South projects such as a planned cross-border railway, but the South Korean government has pledged to use them to urge its neighbor to give up its nuclear programs.
The North, however, has argued that the dispute is with Washington and does not involve the South. Comments by Kim Ryong Song, the head of the 29-member delegation, and a statement issued by the delegation suggested negotiators would stick to that stand.
"However strong outside pressure is and however severe the outside situation is, we all should join forces and unite ourselves with a fervent sense of national respect and move forward through the difficulties lying ahead," the statement said.
The statement suggested that the North would resist the South's attempt to position itself as a central player in the brokering of a peaceful solution to Pyongyang's standoff with Washington.
In flowery opening statements, negotiators from both North and South used the cold of winter as a metaphor for the dispute and the chill it has cast over the Korean Peninsula. But they said the warmth of spring was not far away.
"Let's work together to reach the hill of reunification soon," Kim Ryong Song, North Korea's chief delegate, said at the airport.
"I hope talks will proceed satisfactorily so that they can ... help melt down the cold and bring ahead the warm spring," said Yoon Jin-shik, a deputy finance and economy minister who acts as deputy chief of the South Korean delegation.
The Cabinet-level talks, along with three other sets of inter-Korean meetings this week, continue contacts that began with the North-South summit in June 2000. They are the highest-level regular contacts between the two countries.
Tensions escalated on the peninsula in October when the United States said North Korea had admitted having a secret nuclear weapons program. The United States and its allies suspended oil shipments to the North, and Pyongyang responded by expelling U.N. inspectors and preparing to reactivate facilities from an older nuclear program.
South Korean President-elect Roh Moo-hyun, who takes office next month, has said he would be willing to meet the Northern delegation if they wanted to do so. Kim Ryong Song, the Northern negotiator, said such a meeting was possible, but he did not make a public request for one.
A top U.S. official was also in Seoul on Tuesday to make the U.S. case for putting the nuclear dispute before the U.N. Security Council.
U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton, who handles arms control and international security, said at the same airport Tuesday morning as he arrived from Beijing that getting the United Nations involved is "certainly what we're aiming to do."
He did not say what action the United States would like from the Security Council. U.S. officials, who earlier considered economic penalties against North Korea, have said they would consider economic aid for North Korea if it drops its nuclear development.
Bolton later met with South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jun. Hwang Myung-soo, a ministry spokesman, said both sides "shared the view that a U.S.-South Korea alliance is important in resolving the North's nuclear issue."
The North's state-run media kept up its barrage of criticism of the United States. A commentary in Rodong Sinmun newspaper on Tuesday called for a nonaggression pact with Washington and was blunt in its condemnation of any attempt to involve other countries. "There is no need for other countries to meddle," it said.
The diplomatic efforts to avert an escalation got a potential boost on Monday, when North Korean leader Kim Jong Il met for six hours in Pyongyang with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov.
Losyukov, who went to North Korea to push a Russian proposal to end the impasse, said on Tuesday in Beijing that the talks were productive.
"There were a number of contacts in Pyongyang — very useful and rather constructive," he said, speaking in the VIP lounge of Beijing's Capital Airport. "But generally speaking, I think there is some optimism the problems can be resolved, providing the preparedness of the sides involved."
Moscow's three-part plan reportedly envisions nuclear-free status for the Korean peninsula, written security guarantees and a humanitarian and economic aid package for the impoverished North. Russian officials have not provided the details.