- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 17, 2003

SEOUL, South Korea, April 17 (UPI) — South Korea's president dismissed criticism on Thursday of Seoul's exclusion from talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

President Roh Moo-hyun said the results of next week's talks in Beijing were more important than South Korea's participation in the summit.

But Foreign Ministry officials said the government would call for the suspension of the talks if South Korea remains out of "substantial discussions."

South Korea was excluded from three-way talks involving the United States, North Korea and China, which triggered sharp criticism in Seoul over the format of the talks.

"Many people are unpleased and think our pride has been hurt by the fact that (South) Korea is not involved in the talks," Roh told his chief advisors. "But what is important is the resolution of the nuclear problem. The dialogue format is less important than good outcome."

The president added: "If we insist on taking part in the talks at this stage, it would only make the matter more complicated. It is illogical for us to ruin the nature of the talks in order to save our face."

Presidential officials also played down the concerns, saying the United States has pledged to seek the inclusion of South Korea in future talks with North Korea as "the top priority."

"Without Seoul's participation, it is almost impossible to reach a breakthrough in the nuclear standoff," a presidential official told United Press International.

"Seoul's role is essential to discuss Pyongyang's potential calls for its security guarantee and economic aid," the official, who requested anonymity, said.

In its first formal reaction to the planned talks, the Foreign Ministry issued a statement, welcoming the opening of long-awaited negotiations. "We hail the planned talks as a important step toward a peaceful resolution of the North's nuclear standoff," the statement said.

Pyongyang has refused to include Seoul in the talks, saying the nuclear crisis was "a product of the U.S. hostile policy" toward North Korea and thus it was the United States with whom they wanted to negotiate.

A ministry official said the government would call for the suspension of the three-nation talks if Seoul were not allowed to take part in substantial discussions.

"We will urge the United States to drop the thee-way talks if we remain out of substantial discussions," the official said. "The United States promised to do so."

Unification Ministry officials expressed hopes of resumption of long-stalled inter-Korean reconciliation talks after "successful" nuclear talks. North Korea has frozen dialogue channels with the South, blasting its security alert in the wake of the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

"We are considering proposing government-level talks to discuss reviving reconciliation projects," a ministry official told UPI.

On Thursday, North Korea requested rice and fertilizer aid from South Korea, breaking a month-long freeze in official inter-Korean contact.

"We hope that your side provide us with rice and fertilizer," North Korea's government-controlled Red Cross Society Chairman Jang Jae On said in a message to his South Korean counterpart.

The request came two days after Unification Minister Jeong Se-Hyun said South Korea was ready to donate 200,000 tons of fertilizer to famine-hit North Korea this year.

"The North's request is a sign that it is set to resume dialogue with the South," the ministry official said. South Korea has provided hundreds of thousands of tons of fertilizer aid every year since 1999 at North Korea's request.

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