Negotiators Discuss N. Korea Nuke Talks

Top negotiators from the United States, Japan and South Korea will meet over the weekend to discuss resuming nuclear disarmament talks with North Korea, after the communist leader Kim Jong Il hinted at a possible compromise, officials said Wednesday.

Resuming the stalled talks gained urgency after North Korea declared on Feb. 10 that it possessed nuclear weapons and said it would not rejoin the six-party talks. On Monday, its leader Kim Jong Il (search) told a visiting Chinese envoy that his government would return to the negotiating table if certain conditions are met.

"It's inappropriate for North Korea to attach conditions to returning to the talks," South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon (search) said Wednesday. "The North must come to the talks unconditionally and then it can present its differences and all the parties can try to strike a deal through negotiations."

China, the impoverished North's only remaining major ally, urged the United States and North Korea to be more flexible in resolving the stand-off. Kim said in a rare comment on the nuclear dispute that his government remained committed to a peaceful solution.

"We will go to the negotiating table anytime if there are mature conditions for the six-party talks thanks to the concerted efforts of the parties concerned in the future," the reclusive leader told the envoy, according to Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency (search). He expressed the hope that the United States would show "trustworthy sincerity," it said.

KCNA did not elaborate on the conditions.

During three rounds of six-nation talks in Beijing since 2003, North Korea has demanded more aid and a peace treaty with Washington in exchange for giving up its nuclear program — measures it apparently hopes will guarantee the survival of Kim's regime.

The talks — which include the United States, the two Koreas, China, Russia and Japan — have made little progress amid deep distrust between Washington and Pyongyang. The United States — which once labeled North Korea part of an "axis of evil" with Iran and prewar Iraq — wants a verifiable nuclear freeze and dismantling of weapons as part of any deal.

North Korea says it remains convinced Washington wants to topple its regime. The country's claim of nuclear weapons could not be independently verified.

Russia's ITAR-Tass news agency reported that Kim also told Wang Jiarui, the head of the Chinese Communist Party's International Department, that a resumption of the six-party negotiations depended on changes in Japan's position.

It quoted an unidentified source close to the Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang as saying that Kim complained that Tokyo was blocking the talks by demanding a settlement of a dispute over North Korea's kidnapping of Japanese citizens more than 25 years ago. North Korea insists the issue has been fully settled.

Akira Chiba, a Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman, said Japan had not been informed of any such comments by Kim.

U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill, the top U.S. delegate to the six-party talks, called for unity in negotiating a resumption.

"What we want to do is to make sure we are coordinated," Hill said.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan urged both the United States and North Korea to demonstrate more "sincerity and flexibility."

Beijing worries that a nuclear-armed North would raise tensions in the region and prompt Japan and South Korea to develop atomic weapons.

The foreign ministry spokesman would not say whether China had offered North Korea more aid, but ITAR-Tass said Wang told Kim that China was ready to increase oil deliveries to North Korea if it returned to the six-nation talks.

Following North Korea's rejection of further six-party talks on Feb. 10, China drastically decreased oil deliveries to the energy-starved North, the report said.

South Korean Unification Minister Chung Dong-young said there were two conditions that needed to be met before the talks could resume.

"The United States should recognize North Korea as a negotiation partner," Chung told South Korea's MBC Radio, without elaborating. "North Korea in its part should withdraw its conditions for coming to the negotiating table."