SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea gave rare praise to President Bush (search) on Friday, welcoming his use of the honorific "Mr." when referring to leader Kim Jong Il (search) and saying the softened tone could lead to its return to nuclear arms talks.
The United States wants the North to end its nuclear weapons development, and is working with China, Japan, Russia and South Korea to persuade Pyongyang (search) to return to disarmament talks last held in June 2004. The North has stayed away from the table citing a "hostile" U.S. policy and claimed in February that it had nuclear weapons (search).
"If Bush's remarks put an end to the scramble between the hawkish group and the moderate group in the U.S., which has thrown the Korean policy into a state of confusion, it would help create an atmosphere of the six-party talks," an unnamed North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman said in a statement, according to the official Korean Central News Agency.
At a Tuesday news conference, Bush defended his focus on using diplomacy to try to resolve the standoff.
"It's a matter of continuing to send a message to Mr. Kim Jong Il that if you want to be accepted by the neighborhood and be a part of ... those who are viewed with respect in the world, work with us to get rid of your nuclear weapons program," Bush said.
The North said Friday that it had noted Bush was reported as "politely addressing our headquarters of revolution," a reference to Kim.
"We will closely follow if his remarks would not change day and night as this happened in the past," the spokesman said.
The White House reiterated its call for North Korea to return to the six-party talks.
"They say a lot of things. We want to see them come back and be prepared to talk in a serious way about how to move forward," White House press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters Friday in Crawford, Texas, where Bush is spending the weekend at the ranch. "And I think that's what the other parties in the region want to see, as well."
The softer tone Friday from the North came a day after Pyongyang called Vice President Dick Cheney a "bloodthirsty beast" and said his recent comment that Kim was an "irresponsible" leader was another reason for it to stay away from the nuclear talks.
This week, the North also took a personal swipe at Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, using language laced with insults to imply she was controlling the White House. In the past, Pyongyang has also called Bush a "political imbecile" and "half-baked man."
The North has demanded an apology for Rice labeling the country one of the world's "outposts of tyranny" earlier this year.
Also Friday, the North again asked for the U.S. to make a "bold decision to withdraw the remark ... to remove the biggest hurdle lying in the way of resuming the six-party talks."
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Friday that Washington would continue to try to solve the dispute through six-nation talks.
"Our policy is what it is, and it's well-known," Rumsfeld said at a meeting with Asian defense officials in Singapore.
Meanwhile, the U.S. ambassador to Japan said in Tokyo that a nuclear-armed North Korea would pressure Japan and South Korea to consider building their own atomic arsenals.
Ambassador Thomas Schieffer also cautioned that the North's return to the six-nation talks would be just the beginning of a long process to persuade it to abandon its weapons.
"We have to be very careful that getting North Korea back to the table does not become an end in itself," he said. "The six-party talks were meant to resolve a thorny issue -- they weren't meant to be just an opportunity to talk about it endlessly and achieve nothing."