SEOUL -- The government said yesterday that it favored allowing North Korea to have a peaceful nuclear energy program, opening a yawning policy gulf between South Korea and the United States.
"Our position is that North Korea has a general right to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes such as for agriculture, hospitals, and electricity-generating," Chung Dong-young, Seoul's unification minister and National Security Council chairman, said in an interview with online news site Daum Media. "We have a different view to the United States."
Later yesterday, Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon said the North should be allowed peaceful nuclear energy if it rejoins the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and allows inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, South Korea's Yonhap news wire reported.
Mr. Ban is expected in Washington next week, South Korean press reported.
North Korea's insistence on its right to a nuclear energy program was central to a stalemate at six-party talks in Beijing, which adjourned Sunday after two weeks of fruitless negotiations.
The United States insisted that it could not tolerate any kind of nuclear program in the Stalinist state.
South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun subsequently proposed that his country serve as a mediator among the six nations, which also include China, Russia and Japan.
In Washington yesterday, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli declined to comment on Mr. Chung's remarks.
"There's no rift between the United States and South Korea," Mr. Ereli told reporters.
When pressed, Mr. Ereli said: "I'm not going to speak for the South Korean unification minister."
President Bush said Tuesday in Crawford, Texas that North Korea, unlike Iran, should not be allowed any nuclear programs.
And on Wednesday, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, Washington's lead negotiator in the six-party talks, said: "It is our view that [North Korea] needs to dismantle all their [nuclear] programs. ... This is a country that had trouble keeping peaceful energy peaceful."
He was referring to Pyongyang's failure to honor the 1994 Agreed Framework, under which the United States, South Korea, Japan and the European Union were to supply North Korea with light-water nuclear reactors in return for North Korea abandoning atomic weapons.
In 2002, Washington said North Korean officials had acknowledged having a secret uranium-enrichment program, something Pyongyang now denies. South Korea agreed with Washington last month to permanently halt the light-water reactor project.
South Korea's policy shift leaves the Western camp divided as it prepares for the next round of six-party talks, which are to resume after a three-week recess later this month. It also left analysts in Seoul at a loss.
"I think Chung's argument is that U.S. is helping India, which is not a member of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and there is the Iran case, where the U.S. supports the right to peaceful use of nuclear energy; probably his view is that the policy is not quite right," said Kim Dal-choong, a North Korea analyst at Seoul's Yonsei University.
"But I really doubt that we can influence Washington on this issue by publicly making such a statement supporting the North Korean position."
Peter Beck, the Seoul-based Northeast Asia director of the International Crisis Group, said, "The more daylight there is between Washington and Seoul, the more opportunities there are for North Korea to exploit, and I would fully expect them to exploit differences that are coming out so publicly."
Seoul has, with U.S. approval, offered to supply the North with energy from its own electrical grid on condition that Pyongyang abandon nuclear arms.