SEOUL, South Korea – South Korea's president-elect encouraged the United States on Friday to negotiate with North Korea to defuse the standoff over its nuclear weapons development. A North Korean official said only the United States, not South Korea, could solve the problem.
The South Korean call for talks was echoed by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov, who visited Beijing to discuss the impasse. Losyukov was expected to later head to Pyongyang for talks with North Korean officials.
South Korean President-elect Roh Moo-hyun, speaking to American and European chambers of commerce Friday morning, suggested the United States should push for negotiations with Pyongyang. Washington has said it is willing to talk, but ruled out bargaining with North Korea to get it to dismantle its nuclear programs.
"I would like to persuade the United States to engage actively in dialogue with North Korea," said Roh, who takes office next month. He expressed optimism that a deepening of the confrontation could be averted through talks.
The United States has taken a more conciliatory tone with the North Koreans this week, offering the possibility of energy and agricultural aid for the impoverished country if it gives up its nuclear hopes. But Washington has refused to make any guarantees to Pyongyang.
Roh also said he thought North Korea, one of the most closed nations in the world, was serious about reforming its decrepit economic system. "I think North Korea is sincere about opening up and reforming because they have no choice," he said.
Roh has said he wants South Korea to play a prominent role in resolving the crisis over North Korea's nuclear development.
South Korea has said it would use its contact with the North to press for an end to its nuclear programs, but a Northern official was quoted on Friday as saying that Pyongyang would refuse to discuss the nuclear issue in Cabinet-level talks in Seoul next week.
"The nuclear issue should be resolved through talks between the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the United States," Cho Chung-han, deputy bureau chief of the Secretariat of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, was quoted as saying. "It cannot be resolved by South Koreans."
The secretariat handles relations with South Korea. Cho's comments appeared Thursday in the Choson Sinbo, the newspaper of the pro-Pyongyang General Association of Korean Residents in Japan.
Losyukov, the Russian envoy, said that Washington-Pyongyang negotiations should be opened. But Russia's Interfax news agency later quoted the Foreign Ministry's public affairs office as saying Moscow did not intend to play mediator.
China has offered to host such talks.
"Dialogue between the United States and the DPRK is necessary," Losyukov said, referring to North Korea by the initials of its formal name. "This is mainly an issue between the United States and the DPRK, but other countries also have a major interest in the situation."
Losyukov said it was a time for "quiet diplomacy" and added that it "is important to refrain from loud statements and from further antagonism of the sides."
South Korea on Friday accepted North Korea's proposal on opening talks Jan. 22-25 on connecting cross-border railways and roads. The talks, which will overlap with North-South meetings in Seoul, will take place in Pyongyang.
The Koreas, divided since 1945, have agreed to build two sets of railways and roads across their border. North Korea proposed a reopening of the talks on Thursday in pursuit of joint projects that would bring badly needed cash.
The talks will focus on such issues as South Korea's contribution of construction materials. South Korea has already agreed to provide material assistance, including bulldozers and cement, to the North for its part in the construction.
The project, the most visible product of a historic inter-Korean summit in 2000, has suffered delays in recent months amid tensions between North Korea and the United States.
The North also issued a lengthy chronology of the nuclear dispute Friday on its official news agency, KCNA, blaming the United States for the impasse and dismissing as a "rumor" Washington's assertion that Pyongyang admitted in October to having a secret weapons program.
Pyongyang also mixed provocative statements with offers to negotiate. In a KCNA dispatch monitored by South Korea's Yonhap news agency, the North said it was prepared for talks with Washington.
"There is no reason why they cannot resolve this issue through direct negotiations with us," the commentary said.
In addition to the Cabinet-level talks, the North and South also planned to reopen Red Cross talks on reunions for family members separated when the peninsula was divided in 1945. The meetings will take place at the North's Diamond Mountain resort on Jan. 20-22.