SEOUL, South Korea – North Korean President Kim Jong Il heard a Russian plan for ending his nation's nuclear standoff during talks Monday with a Moscow envoy, his first known meeting with a foreigner since the crisis started.
The three-part plan, presented by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov, envisions nuclear-free status for the Korean peninsula, and written security guarantees and a humanitarian and economic aid package for the impoverished North.
Losyukov was quoted as telling the Russian news agency ITAR-Tass that talks were "very warm" and "successful," but he cautioned they were only a first step in ending the standoff with the United States over North Korea's nuclear ambitions.
"Generally speaking, I think there is some optimism the problems can be resolved" provided the sides involved are prepared, Losyukov said on returning to Beijing from the insular nation.
Losyukov declined further comment, saying he had to brief Russian President Vladimir Putin about his trip. He said he would remain in China for another day to meet with officials. "I'm rather exhausted," he said.
The talks represented a possible breakthrough in the dispute, even as U.S. officials sought support for taking it to the U.N. Security Council — a move that would increase pressure on the North, because the council can impose international sanctions.
Russia, along with China, is one of the communist North's few remaining allies and seen as key to resolving the conflict or helping to arrange the direct talks Washington seeks with Pyongyang.
Kim, who like his father before him rules North Korea with an iron fist, is regarded as the only power in the isolated country who can make any decision on the nuclear issue.
His meeting with Losyukov was apparently his first with a foreigner since early December, when his country decided to reactivate nuclear facilities frozen under a 1994 energy deal with the United States. It since expelled U.N. monitors and quit a global anti-nuclear treaty.
Losyukov said Kim was expected to give his answer on the "package plan" directly to Putin.
Meanwhile, U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton arrived in Seoul Tuesday for talks on the Korean issue, saying Washington wants to bring the nuclear crisis to the U.N. Security Council.
But in comments to reporters, he sidestepped the issue of whether the United States would pursue sanctions, calling that "a very different question."
In Beijing on Monday, Bolton said after meeting with Chinese officials that China seems to have no objection to let the Security Council take up the issue.
Secretary of State Colin Powell received similar assurances from China's foreign minister in New York, where both attended a U.N. conference on terrorism, a State Department spokesman said.
China has veto power on council, whose possible sanctions could further cripple the impoverished North, dependent on international handouts to help feed its 22 million people.
On Tuesday, a high-level North Korean delegation arrived in the South for reconciliation talks that Seoul hopes will address the nuclear dispute, YTN television reported. The delegation arrived on a commercial jet from Beijing at Incheon International Airport, the report said. Four days of Cabinet-level talks were scheduled to start later in the day.
A first round of meetings opened late Monday between Red Cross officials at the North's Diamond Mountain resort, aimed at setting up a reunion center for Korean families separated by the division of the peninsula.
"Through various South-North contacts, the government will directly deliver our and international concerns over the North's nuclear issue and urge them to actively resolve the problem," said Park Sun-sook, chief spokesman for outgoing President Kim Dae-jung.
The meetings continue contacts between the divided Koreas that began with a historic summit of their leaders in 2000. But it was unclear how much success the South would have in bringing up the nuclear dispute, because Pyongyang sees the impasse as a matter between it and the United States.
One barrier to a solution has been the North's insistence on the United States issuing a nonaggression treaty — something the U.S. Congress is unlikely to do, because Pyongyang backed out of the 1994 pact.
The North, through its official KCNA news agency Monday, emphasized its demand for a "legal document" from the United States guaranteeing it would not attack.
Washington has said it would consider some form of a written promise — though not a formal treaty — and the Russian plan, as described by Itar-TASS, asks that the security guarantees be in writing.
The same KCNA dispatch Monday dismissed as a "hypocritical farce" recent U.S. proposals to talk with the North if it gives up its nuclear program. Pyongyang has insisted such talks be without conditions.
Furthering efforts for a diplomatic solution, South Korea's President-elect Roh Moo-hyun decided Monday to send senior officials as special envoys to China and Russia to seek help, a spokesman said.
But in an apparent effort to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington — the South's closest ally — the top North Korean diplomat in Hong Kong said that even if his country has nuclear weapons, it would not use them against South Koreans.
"If the United States attacks us, we'll only go after our enemy," North Korean Consul-General Ri To Sop told the Chinese-language Ming Pao newspaper. "We will not mix up South Korea with the United States."