- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 30, 2002

North Korea is ready to resume direct talks with the United States "without any preconditions," Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said yesterday after five hours of private weekend talks with reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang.
Early this morning, South Korea accepted a "regret" from the North for a deadly naval clash last month and responded to an offer to reopen dialogue on the divided peninsula by proposing working-level meetings this weekend.
The White House and the State Department yesterday refused to discuss when a U.S.-North Korea meeting would take place. Both Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam-sun are attending a security summit of Southeast Asian nations in Brunei this week, and Mr. Powell has not ruled out a bilateral meeting.
"We are reviewing options for next steps with North Korea," National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters at the White House yesterday. "As the president has said before, we are prepared for serious and comprehensive talks if Pyongyang is also prepared."
A meeting between Mr. Powell and Mr. Paek would be the first high-level direct contact with North Korea since Mr. Bush took office and would cap a series of unexpectedly conciliatory moves in recent weeks by the North after the June 29 naval incident with South Korean forces off the peninsula's coast.
On Thursday, North Korea surprised its southern neighbour by proposing talks to revive their stalled reconciliation and voicing regret over the Yellow Sea clash that killed five South Korean sailors and an estimated 13 North Koreans.
The South Korean Unification Ministry, in a telephone message to North Korea this morning, said Seoul had "taken note" of the North's message of "regret."
"We call on you to take all necessary measures to prevent a repeat of the armed clash and similar tragic incident in the future," the message said.
It also said South Korea wanted to send a delegation to the North's Mount Kumgang resort from Aug. 2-4 for working-level talks to prepare for a ministerial meeting in Seoul, the seventh such cabinet-level gathering since 2000.
A planned mid-July visit by Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly to North Korea was called off after the naval battle and after Pyongyang repeatedly refused to respond to Bush administration overtures for new contacts.
Mr. Paek already has said he will meet with Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi tomorrow while in Brunei, the first such high-level meeting between those governments in two years.
The Russian Itar-Tass news agency yesterday quoted Mr. Ivanov as saying Pyongyang "is ready for a constructive dialogue with the U.S. and Japan without any preconditions."
"Such a discussion would allow the discussion of the entire range of issues concerning the Korean Peninsula," Mr. Ivanov said.
The Bush administration says it wants to resume talks with North Korea focusing on Pyongyang's weapons exports, its huge conventional forces, oversight of aid programs and, most critically, inspection of North Korea's nuclear power program with Pyongyang's self-imposed moratorium on long-range missile development due to expire in March.
Mr. Bush has taken a tough line on North Korea, including it in his "axis of evil" and putting the brakes on a rapprochement pursued by the Clinton administration.
After a policy review, the U.S. government late last year offered to resume contacts, but Washington and Pyongyang have sparred continually about the agenda for such talks.
Explaining North Korean foreign policy and the motivations of the mercurial Mr. Kim has always been a risky business. Some analysts believe that Pyongyang has softened its confrontational stance in light of its collapsing economy and the loss of former patrons in China and Russia.
But Bates Gill, a specialist in East Asian security issues at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Kim Jong-il may calculate that he is dealing from a newfound position of strength.
"Domestically, it seems he has consolidated his power base and at least stabilized the economic situation," Mr. Gill said. "The North has also steadily enlarged its diplomatic relations, with most of America's European allies, with Canada, Australia and New Zealand."
"With the [missile] moratorium expiring next year, Kim may even feel he has some cards to play and is prepared to go back to the well with the South and with the U.S. administration to see what happens," Mr. Gill said.
Mr. Powell is expected to have direct talks with both Mr. Ivanov and Mr. Kawaguchi in Brunei before any U.S. contact with Mr. Paek.
"There does appear to be some intensification" of North Korean interest in talks, a senior State Department official traveling with Mr. Powell told reporters in Thailand yesterday. "We'll be sorting out whether in our assessment anything we do will interfere with the very positive developments that are going on between North Korea and Japan and South Korea, as well."

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