North Korea (search) said Wednesday it would not need nuclear weapons if the United States treated it like a friend, as the isolated nation joined South Korea for high-level reconciliation talks.
The bilateral meeting was shadowed by the international standoff over the North's nuclear ambitions.
"If the United States treats the North in a friendly manner, we will possess not one nuclear weapon," the North Korean delegation said, according to Kim Chun-shick, spokesman for the South Koreans.
The statement echoed a pledge by North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (search), who met Friday with visiting South Korean Unification Minister Chung Dong-young and said Pyongyang could return to international nuclear disarmament talks as soon as next month if it gets appropriate respect from Washington (search).
Chung, head of Seoul's delegation, on Wednesday urged the North to return to nuclear talks in July, his ministry said.
"The North Korean nuclear issue is a matter between the two Koreas as well as an international one," Kim Chun-shick quoted Chung as saying.
The North has stayed away from six-party talks aimed at persuading it to disarm since June 2004, citing "hostile" U.S. policies. It declared in February that it had nuclear weapons and has insisted that the nuclear standoff can only be discussed with the United States. The North's claim has not been verified independently.
Two U.S. experts on Korea wrote in The Washington Post on Wednesday that they delivered a message from the North Korean leader to President Bush in November 2002.
The written message to Bush said the United States and North Korea "should be able to resolve the nuclear issue in compliance with the demands of the new century," according to the two messengers — Donald Gregg, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, and Don Oberdorfer, a Korea expert at the School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.
"If the United States makes a bold decision, we will respond accordingly," Kim said in the message, according to Gregg and Oberdorfer.
Kim's offer was conditioned on U.S. recognition of North Korea's sovereignty and assurances of nonaggression, the two wrote in an opinion piece.
But the administration spurned engagement with Kim. In response, the authors said, Kim within weeks expelled inspectors from the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency, withdrew from the Nonproliferation Treaty and reopened plutonium facilities shut down since 1994 under an agreement with the Clinton administration.
U.S. officials were not immediately available for comment.
Gregg and Oberdorfer said they see a new opportunity for a breakthrough in Kim's conciliatory comments last week in which he raised the possibility of reversing his nuclear program and rejoining the treaty. They urged Bush to follow up on Kim's overture by communicating directly with him.
In Beijing, Chinese President Hu Jintao and South Korea's visiting Prime Minister Lee Chae-hang appealed for a quick resumption of the six-party nuclear talks, Chinese state television reported. China, which is North Korea's last main ally, has hosted three rounds of the talks, which also involve the United States, Japan and Russia.
The Cabinet-level talks that began Wednesday are the highest regular meeting between the North and South since a landmark 2000 summit between their leaders. Contacts resumed last month after being severed by the North for 10 months in anger over mass defections of its citizens to the South.
The two Koreas are focusing on aid and cooperative projects to bridge their divided peninsula, including cross-border trade and family reunions among Koreans separated since the 1950-1953 Korean War.
At the start of Wednesday's talks, the North requested food aid, citing continuing shortages, Kim Chun-shick said.
The North Korean delegation had been set Wednesday afternoon to visit a film studio outside Seoul, but changed their schedule to avoid a planned protest by a rights activist.
Also Wednesday, a group of about 20 elderly protesters demonstrated in front of the hotel where the meetings were taking place to demand information about relatives they allege were abducted by the North during the Korean War. They shouted chants for about 30 minutes before they were detained by police.