South Korea Pressures North for Commitment to Stop Nuclear Production

In the two Korean capitals, Southern negotiators pushed Northern counterparts on Thursday to agree to specific steps to peacefully settle the nuclear standoff, while the United States increased pressure to put the dispute before the U.N. Security Council.

In Cabinet-level talks in Seoul, negotiators hashed out the wording of a proposed joint statement that they said could be issued later in the day. The South Koreans want the North to say what it will do to lower tensions.

"We underlined our people's and international society's concerns about North Korea's nuclear issue and continued to urge them to make a progressive position on it," said South Korean delegate Rhee Bong-jo.

In the talks, which began Wednesday, the North has assured the South that it does not intend to build nuclear weapons and that the dispute could be resolved through dialogue. The South is apparently pushing for a more specific statement from the North.

The negotiations coincided with an effort by the United States to win agreement for U.N. Security Council consideration of the North's nuclear aims.

U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton arrived in Tokyo on Thursday. He was scheduled to meet with Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi later in the day. Bolton said in Seoul on Wednesday that it was only "a matter of time" before the Security Council addresses the issue.

In the Northern capital of Pyongyang, a separate set of North and South Korean negotiators gathered on Thursday for talks on completing railroad and road links between the two countries started as part of the reconciliation process stemming from the North-South summit in June 2000.

The South also pressed the North in that forum to back away from threatening to build atomic bombs, according to Southern media reports.

"South Korea will never accept any North Korean nuclear weapons development, and the nuclear dispute should be resolved peacefully," Cho Myung-gyun was quoted by pool reports as saying in an opening speech.

Cho also urged North Korea to resolve technical disputes with the U.S.-led U.N. Command -- which oversees the Demilitarized Zone between the two countries -- as soon as possible to open a railway line and a road link through the western sector of the border by the end of February.

The transportation links had been scheduled to be completed by the end of last year, but have been stalled.

So far, Pyongyang has refused to allow other countries to play a central role in the nuclear dispute, which it considers to be strictly a matter between North Korea and the United States.

The North made that argument very clear during recent talks with U.N. envoy Maurice Strong, a special adviser to Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Strong said on Wednesday that Pyongyang would consider any punitive moves the Security Council to be "an act of war."

Bolton said in Seoul that Britain, France and most likely Russia would back a move to put the dispute to the United Nations, and that China had not voiced any opposition.

But Western diplomats on the Security Council said the issue likely will not come up anytime soon since it still is being debated by the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency in Vienna, Austria.

The North maintained its harsh condemnation of the United States on Thursday, accusing Washington through its state-run media of planning a pre-emptive attack on North Korea.

"The DPRK can never remain a mere onlooker to the cry ... for an attack on the DPRK at a time when there is the real danger of a nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula due to the U.S. vicious, hostile policy toward it," the North's KCNA news agency said.

Tensions escalated in October when the United States said North Korea admitted having a nuclear program in violation of a 1994 agreement. The United States and its allies suspended oil shipments to the North, and Pyongyang responded by expelling U.N. inspectors and preparing to restart a nuclear reactor to generate badly needed electricity.