SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea agreed on Thursday to Cabinet-level talks with South Korea that could include attempts to resolve the nuclear standoff, but suggested pushing back the proposed date a week.
The talks would be the highest-level dialogue between the sides since shortly after it was revealed last fall that the communist nation had a secret nuclear weapons program.
North Korea alarmed the world in December by taking steps to reactivate nuclear facilities frozen under a deal with Washington in 1994 and then expelling U.N. monitors. The North still has not responded to the U.S. declaration of willingness to renew talks to end the standoff.
South Korea had proposed holding its meetings with North Korean officials Tuesday through Friday in Seoul. The North indicated Thursday it wants to meet a week later, according to the South Korean Unification Ministry.
The North did not say why it wanted the delay, but the extra week could give the isolated Stalinist regime time to study what a top U.S. diplomat has to say during a planned visit to Seoul next week.
South Korea has said it wants to use the meetings to discuss defusing the nuclear dispute.
Meanwhile, other countries were stepping up efforts to push for a diplomatic solution.
French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin met with his Chinese counterpart, Tang Jiaxuan, for 3 hours in Beijing Thursday and was told that China wants to see a diplomatic solution to the dispute. China is North Korea's last major ally.
"Tang Jiaxuan stressed that at this stage, it is most important to prevent further escalation" of tensions over North Korea, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue said.
Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was in Moscow -- an ally of North Korea -- for talks with Russian officials Thursday on the dispute.
The Bush administration has said North Korea must make the next move on opening talks with the United States.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Washington's offer to hold talks was unconditional and that the United States was "not ruling anything else out" apart from further inducements to get the North to again freeze its nuclear weapons programs.
South Korean National Security Adviser Yim Sung-joon, currently in Washington for talks on the nuclear standoff, said a strong U.S.-South Korean alliance should form the basis of any resolution, according to South Korea's Yonhap news agency.
Separately, Red Cross officials from both Koreas agreed Thursday to hold talks this month on more family reunions and the establishment of a permanent reunion center for families separated before and after the 1950-53 Korean War.
The two sides agreed to hold working-level talks at the North's Diamond Mountain resort on Jan. 20-22, South Korea's Red Cross said in a statement. The talks will try to establish a date for the next round of actual reunions.