S. Korea to Send Envoy to Consult on Nuke Standoff

South Korean envoys will fly to Washington, Moscow and Beijing for consultations after North Korea's leader raised hopes of resuming international talks on curbing its nuclear programs, officials said Saturday.

In an unexpected meeting Friday with a visiting top South Korean official, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (search) said his communist regime could rejoin the six-nation nuclear talks as early as next month if the United States respects North Korea as a partner.

Kim made his remarks to South Korean Unification Minister Chung Dong-young (search). The North has been boycotting the talks — which include the two Koreas, United States, China, Japan and Russia — since June 2004, citing what it calls hostile U.S. policies.

However, Washington promptly dismissed the overture, saying Kim needed to set a date and make a more concrete commitment to nuclear negotiations.

"The important point to keep in mind is that until we have a date, we don't have a date," State Department spokesman Adam Ereli (search) said in Washington. "So reports aside, the bottom line we're looking for ... is actually getting back to the talks and engaging substantively."

On Saturday, South Korea's Foreign Ministry said it plans to send Vice Foreign Minister Lee Tae-shik to Washington for talks on the meeting with Kim.

Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon already discussed Kim's comments with the top U.S. negotiator to the nuclear talks, Christopher Hill, in Seoul on Saturday, a ministry statement said.

Also, Kim Won-soo, a senior diplomat who accompanied Chung on the trip to Pyongyang, will head to Moscow late Saturday.

Deputy Foreign Minister Song Min-soon, Seoul's main delegate to the nuclear talks, will head to Beijing on Monday.

Discussions with Tokyo will be arranged during a visit to Seoul by Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on Monday and Tuesday, the ministry said.

The North Korean ruler's meeting with Chung was his first contact with a top South official since April 2002 and clearly was intended to be a message to Washington.

Kim, in rare flattering comments, said he "has no reason to think badly" of President Bush, and he even asked Chung if the American president should be addressed by a Korean honorific that roughly translates as "his excellency."

"I've been thinking favorably of the United States since the Clinton administration," Chung quoted Kim as saying.

Kim also said he would welcome international nuclear inspections and rejoin the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty if the nuclear standoff was resolved.

In late 2002, U.S. officials accused the North of running a secret uranium enrichment program. North Korea expelled U.N. nuclear inspectors in December 2002, and then withdrew from the treaty within months.

Efforts to resume the talks gained urgency in February when the North claimed it already had nuclear weapons. That claim has not been verified independently.

The North subsequently announced it had removed fuel rods from a nuclear reactor, a step toward extracting weapons-grade plutonium that could be added to a stockpile experts believe can build about six atomic bombs.

But Kim said Friday that "if the regime's security is guaranteed, there is no reason to possess a single nuclear weapon," Chung said.

Kim's softened tone toward Washington went unreported by North Korean media, and North Korean officials Saturday kept up their harsh rhetoric against Washington.

"Should the U.S. dare start a war on the peninsula despite our repeated warnings, we will mobilize all the political and military potentials ... and wipe out the aggressors without mercy," Choe Thae Bok, the speaker of North Korea's legislature, told a national meeting, according to Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency.