SEOUL, South Korea – The presidents of Russia and South Korea agreed during a Saturday phone call to cooperate on reaching a peaceful resolution to the North Korean nuclear crisis.
Initiated by outgoing President Kim Dae-jung, the conversation was part of South Korea's intensifying diplomatic efforts to defuse Pyongyang's standoff with the United States over the communist North's moves toward developing nuclear weapons.
But the North has emphasized that it does not want other countries interfering in the dispute, which it sees as a matter between it and the United States — a stance it reiterated Saturday.
North Korea "is strongly opposed to any attempt to internationalize the nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula and will never participate in any form of `multiparty' talks related to the issue," an unidentified Foreign Ministry official was quoted as saying in a report by KCNA, the North's foreign news outlet.
"The only way of solving the nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula peacefully and in a most fair way is for the DPRK and the U.S. to hold direct and equal negotiations," the spokesman said, using the acronym of the communist country's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said Saturday he was optimistic that bilateral talks eventually will be held and that a diplomatic solution to North's Korea's nuclear weapons ambitions can be reached.
Powell, in Switzerland for the World Economic Forum, said the situation on the Korean peninsula has "settled down a bit' in recent days following a series of moves by Pyongyang over almost three months to further develop its existing nuclear weapons capability.
Powell said Russia, China and Japan all are eager for the United States to resume direct talks with North Korea.
"I believe that will happen eventually, " Powell said, noting that President Bush favors a dialogue as well.
Still, Moscow and Seoul have been at the forefront of international diplomacy to ease tensions. Russia, along with China, is one of the North's few allies, and is seen as key to either resolving the dispute or brokering talks between Pyongyang and Washington.
While both sides want talks, each has imposed conditions refused by the other: The United States wants the North to cease development of its nuclear program before any talks, and Pyongyang wants Washington to sign an official nonaggression treaty that it will not attack.
Still, the Russian and South Korean leaders exchanged information about a scheduled visit next week by two South Korean envoys to the North and a senior Russian envoy's visit last week to Pyongyang.
"President Kim sought Russia's help in resolving the crisis, and President (Vladimir) Putin promised to render support," Kim's national security adviser, Yim Sung-joon, said of the phone call.
Their conversation came as the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency considered holding an emergency meeting Feb. 3 to decide whether to refer the nuclear crisis to the U.N. Security Council, which could impose international sanctions to further pressure the impoverished North.
Pyongyang has warned that Council sanctions would be tantamount to an act of war. U.S. officials said Friday that while Washington wants to bring the issue to the Council, that does not necessarily mean sanctions would be imposed.
South Korea on Saturday urged the Vienna-based U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency to postpone its possible meeting, hoping the upcoming visits Seoul envoys will futher defuse the standoff.
"We think the suggested date is too early in view of a new development — the envoys' visit," said Chun Young-woo, of South Korea's Foreign Ministry. "We need time to assess the outcome of the visit."
South Korea's state-run KBS-TV said Pyongyang's agreement to accept the envoys could indicate its recognition of South Korea's role in helping resolve the crisis.
But in earlier Cabinet-level negotiations, the South pushed the North to announce specific steps to defuse its standoff with Washington, but in the end, Seoul was able only to win a general pledge to resolve the dispute peacefully.
The two envoys, expected to carry a personal letter from President Kim, will stay in North Korea two or three days.
In an interview Friday, President-elect Roh Moo-hyun said he would propose a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il after taking office Feb. 25. Roh is a strong supporter of Kim Dae-jung's "sunshine" policy of engaging the communist North, and U.S. officials have backed South Korea's calls for more dialogue.
North Korea on Saturday said through the state-run news agency that it was on the lookout for the U.S. aircraft carrier the USS Kitty Hawk.
The carrier left its home port in Japan on Thursday to monitor North Korea. Japan's Kyodo news agency reported it had been directed to stand by in international waters off the Korean Peninsula, though U.S. officials refused to provide information about the ship's movements.
"This is arousing a high degree of vigilance of the DPRK as it is a dangerous move to stifle it militarily," KCNA said, citing the Kyodo report. DPRK, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, is the North's official name.