North Korea Hints it Would Accept Multilateral Talks Over Nuclear Dispute

North Korea hinted Saturday it could accept U.S. demands for multilateral talks to discuss the communist country's suspected nuclear weapons program.

The announcement might herald a dramatic change in North Korean policy. Until now, the North has insisted on only direct talks with Washington to negotiate a nonaggression treaty.

"If the U.S. is ready to make a bold switchover in its Korea policy for a settlement of the nuclear issue, the DPRK will not stick to any particular dialogue format," the North's KCNA news agency quoted a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying.

DPRK stands for Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the North's official name.

U.S. officials say North Korea poses a global danger and have rejected one-on-one talks, saying the standoff should be solved in a multilateral forum including Russia, China, Japan and South Korea.

"It is possible to solve the issue if the U.S. sincerely approaches the dialogue," said the spokesman, who was not identified by name. "What matters is the U.S."

A senior South Korean Foreign Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, described the North's comments on the talks as a "step forward."

The possible shift came as the war in Iraq progresses and the United States is expected to pay more attention to North Korea. In recent weeks, North Korea has repeatedly accused the United States of planning an invasion there once it toppled Saddam Hussein.

President Bush has dubbed North Korea as part of an "axis of evil" with Iraq and Iran. He has said he seeks to deal with North Korea diplomatically but has not ruled out military action.

On Friday, North Korea said it would never give up its nuclear programs and compared U.N. inspections to "taking off our pants" and giving Washington an excuse to invade.

On Wednesday, the U.N. Security Council said it was concerned about the nuclear dispute. The council could eventually impose sanctions against the North if a diplomatic solution is not found.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun on Saturday urged North Korea to hold talks to resolve the crisis, which flared in October when U.S. officials said North Korea admitted it had a clandestine nuclear program in violation of the 1994 agreement with the United States.

"When the North comes out as a responsible member of the international community, we and the international community will not hold back on all necessary assistance," Roh's office quoted the president as saying.

South Korea, which is a close ally of the United States, hopes to persuade isolated North Korea to scrap its nuclear programs in return for aid and better ties with the outside world.

Roh, who took office in February, said he would discuss the issue with Bush when he visits Washington next month for their first summit. He said he also plans to meet with the leaders of China, Russia and Japan soon.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov was quoted as telling the Interfax news agency Friday that the government has ordered officials to work out "preventive measures" to defend national interests and the population in the country's Far East should the crisis on the Korean Peninsula spin out of control.

Losyukov said Moscow might reconsider its opposition to economic sanctions against North Korea, which the United States favors, if Pyongyang starts to consider producing or using nuclear weapons, Interfax reported.

Losyukov said Russia was frustrated by the two sides' refusal to open talks.

"We are disappointed and surprised by the position of some participants in the conflict, who do not seem to want to seriously address the problem through negotiations," Interfax quoted Losyukov as saying.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il inspected a military base on Friday. Kim inspected Unit 205 of the Korean People's Army and told officers there, "No forces on earth can match this might of the People's Army," the North's news agency said. KCNA earlier reported that Kim visited an air force base Thursday.

On Saturday, a North Korean youth group vowed loyalty to the regime ahead of the nation's biggest holiday, the April 15 birthday of late President Kim Il Sung. He died in 1994 and Kim Jong Il succeeded his father in communism's first hereditary succession.

"Once Kim Jong Il gives us an order, we, 5 million young people will become human bombs and wipe out the U.S. imperialists on this land," North Korea's KCNA news agency quoted unidentified members of the Young Vanguard as saying.