South Korea on Thursday welcomed President Bush's (search) softened tone toward North Korea, hoping it would help the communist North return to talks aimed at ending its nuclear weapons programs.

Bush only briefly mentioned North Korea (search) late Wednesday during his State of the Union (search) address, broadcast early Thursday in Asia, saying Washington was "working closely with governments in Asia to convince North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions."

That was a stark contrast to his speech three years ago, when he branded North Korea part of an "axis of evil" with Iran and Iraq.

The absence of hostile rhetoric raised hopes for a positive response from North Korea. Analysts have said the North was waiting to see what Bush would say about it in his State of the Union speech before deciding to rejoin nuclear talks.

"We assess that President Bush's speech reflected Washington's will to resolve the North's nuclear issue through a peaceful and diplomatic way," South Korea's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

"Now, it's time for North Korea to make a positive response and for us to resume the six-party talks soon and make concrete progress for the resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue," it said.

Analysts in South Korea predicted that the absence of harsh words would help restart the nuclear talks.

"The United States appears to have carefully prepared the speech so as not to give North Korea an excuse for not coming to the six-party talks," Kim Sung-han, a professor at Seoul's Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, said in an interview with TV channel YTN.

Prof. Koh Yu-hwan of Seoul's Dongguk University said Bush seemed to be giving North Korea "one more chance." Bush also appeared conscious that he might have been criticized for hampering progress on denuclearization if he had stuck to his earlier rhetoric about the North.

Since 2003, the United States, the two Koreas, China, Japan and Russia have held three rounds of six-nation talks on the North's nuclear weapons programs. But no significant progress was reported.

A fourth round of talks scheduled for last September did not take place because North Korea refused to attend.

Possible exports of nuclear materials and technology by North Korea have long been a concern of the United States. The reclusive state is known to have sold missiles to Iran and Syria in past years.

North Korea has cited a "hostile" U.S. policy as the key stumbling block to ending the nuclear standoff. It has demanded that Washington provide a nonaggression treaty and compensation in return for ending its nuclear programs.

The nuclear dispute erupted in late 2002 when Washington accused North Korea of running a secret nuclear program, and cut off free oil shipments. North Korea denied the claim, quit the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and restarted its mothballed plutonium weapons program.