South Korea couldn't get North Korea (search) to agree Thursday to return to nuclear arms negotiations but did persuade the reclusive communist country to schedule high-level talks for next month where the contentious issue is certain to come up again.
In the meantime, the North is expected to consider an apparent overture from Washington, which sent diplomats to a secret meeting last week at the Pyongyang regime's U.N. office.
Japan's Asahi newspaper said senior State Department officials offered assurances the Bush administration recognizes North Korea as a sovereign nation under Kim Jong Il's (search) leadership and does not intend to attack it.
White House spokesman Trent Duffy confirmed the meeting took place, but offered few details.
"In the past this channel has been used to convey messages to North Korea, messages of U.S. policy, not to negotiate," Duffy said. "This time the channel was used to reiterate the message directly, that the North Koreans need to return to the six-party talks without pre-conditions, so we can pursue a policy of a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula."
North Korea rejected Washington's recognition of its sovereignty, saying late Thursday that it was a "lie" to conceal a plan to topple its government.
"It was clear (the U.S.) is trying to ignite a fire of nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula," the North's official Korean Central News Agency quoted an unidentified government spokesman as saying. "It is very natural for us to strengthen self-defensive nuclear deterrence to protect our people's dignity and security."
While progress at the first face-to-face talks between the two Koreas in 10 months appeared to be scant, both sides left the North Korean border town of Kaesong with small victories and avoided making major concessions. Even the fact that the North didn't walk out was seen as a positive development.
"We have reached these good results because North and South Korea have pooled their wisdom and will," said Kim Man Gil, head of North Korea's delegation. "Our position is also to peacefully resolve the nuclear issue. We are also willing to return to the six-nation talks. It's just that the United States should make the conditions and atmosphere."
Those talks — involving the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia — are aimed at getting the North to abandon its nuclear arms program. Pyongyang said Feb. 10 that it has nuclear weapons and would stay away from the talks until Washington dropped its "hostile" policy.
A joint statement said both Koreas agreed to work for peace. It said a follow-up Cabinet-level meeting — proposed by the South — would be held June 21-24 in Seoul. South Korea also will begin providing 200,000 tons of fertilizer to the North in two days, in time for the spring planting season.
North Korea often suffers food shortages and the communist regime regularly uses brinksmanship over its nuclear program to wring aid.
"We tried to include the North Korean nuclear issue, the largest point of contention, in the joint statement," said South Korean Vice Unification Minister Rhee Bong-jo (search).
"It is somewhat insufficient, but by stating that South and North Korea would exert joint efforts for the peace of the Korean Peninsula, the South and the North have expressed our active will to solve the North Korean nuclear issue."
The South also agreed to send a delegation to Pyongyang for June 15 celebrations of the fifth anniversary of a historic summit accord between the two rivals.
South Korean media said that it would be led by Unification Minister Chung Dong-young and that there was a possibility he would visit North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Chung said no decision had been finalized on whether he would go, but he was upbeat about the results of the talks.
"South-North dialogue that has been blocked for 10 months will be normalized, and (the agreement) will help in the resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue," Chung said.
There was no mention in the final statement of South Korea's proposals for another round of reunions for families divided since the Korean War or a trial run of two cross-border railways.
South Korea's government has found itself walking a tightrope, trying to appease domestic pressure for some improvement in relations with the North, while allies — including Washington — press for action on the nuclear issue.
U.S. officials said last week that spy satellites spotted construction of a tunnel and a reviewing stand in North Korea that could be possible indications of a coming nuclear weapons test. South Korean officials dismissed the reports as lacking firm evidence.