- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 13, 2003

SEOUL, South Korea, March 13 (UPI) — South Korea's top diplomat said Thursday his country was supporting a U.S. push for a multilateral approach to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis, reversing an earlier call of direct talks between the two nations.

The previous position, which endorsed Pyongyang's demand of direct talks, triggered a rift between the two allies over how to address the months-old standoff over North Korea's nuclear programs.

Officials in Seoul said the policy change came as part of efforts to improve security ties with the United States, which have been strained in the wake of the nuclear crisis and strong anti-American protests in the country.

"The (Seoul) government considers it desirable to try defuse a nuclear dispute through multilateral talks," Foreign Minister Yoon Young-kwan said.

He also criticized North Korea's insistence on direct talks Washington as "illogical."

"North Korea can have substantial face-to-face talks with the United States within the multilateral framework," Yoon said in a radio interview. "North Korea doesn't necessarily have to regard the multilateral formula negative."

North Korea has said it will only meet directly with the United States to find a solution, saying the nuclear row was "a product of the U.S. hostile policy" toward the world's only Stalinist state.

"The only way of solving it is to conclude a non-aggression treaty with legal binding force through bilateral direct talks," Pyongyang's recent statement said.

But the United States has rejected the North Korean demand as a ploy to extract more concessions, offering to discuss the dispute in a multilateral setting that includes South Korea Russia, China and other countries.

Yoon also urged North Korea to dismantle its nuclear programs, which he said would bring out "various economic assistance" to the impoverished North.

In another effort to repair ties with Washington, Yoon said his country planned to send military engineers to help the United States if its ally goes to war with Iraq.

"Economic and medial assistance could also be made," he said. "Assistance is preferable, considering the alliance and the current situation when bilateral ties must be strengthened," Yoon said.

South Korea's top foreign policymaker also said he would meet U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell later this month to discuss security ties and North Korea. A Seoul-based diplomat told United Press International Yoon's trip to Washington would take place around March 27.

Seoul's voices in favor of a U.S. stance came amid lingering security jitters in the country after Washington indicated a possible withdrawal of 37,000 American troops from South Korea.

In an effort to calm fears, President Roh Moo-hyun also called for a stronger alliance with the United States.

"The solid alliance with the United States should be maintained even more so," he said in a Wednesday speech at the Korean Military Academy.

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