Friday, July 22, 2005

SEOUL — North Korea offered yesterday to abandon its nuclear weapons if the two sides in the Korean War sign a peace agreement to replace the 1953 cease-fire that halted hostilities but did not resolve the conflict.

A peace pact would halt what the North calls U.S. hostility “which spawned the nuclear issue,” a spokesman from the North’s Foreign Ministry said. That would “automatically result in the denuclearization of the peninsula.”

The unnamed spokesman, quoted by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency, said such a move would “give a strong impetus” to the six-nation arms talks set to resume Tuesday in Beijing.

The North earlier this month ended a 13-month boycott of the talks — which include China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States — after being reassured by a U.S. envoy that Washington recognized its sovereignty.

Three previous rounds aimed at persuading the North to give up its nuclear weapons failed to resolve the nuclear standoff.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il reportedly told a visiting South Korean Cabinet minister last month that the denuclearization of the peninsula was the dying wish of his father, the North’s founding ruler Kim Il-sung. The elder Mr. Kim died in 1994.

However, it wasn’t clear whether the North’s new demand could throw off next week’s talks by creating yet another troublesome negotiating point — one that’s festered for more than five decades since the fighting stopped.

Most recently, the U.S. has objected to discussing a peace deal or any other concessions until after North Korea gives up its weapons.

The North, however, said its new request “presents itself as an issue pending an urgent solution for fairly settling the nuclear issue between [North Korea] and the U.S.”

The North said yesterday that Washington has for decades stifled efforts to turn the Korean War cease-fire into a lasting peace agreement. Doing so “is essential not only for the peace and reunification of Korea but for the peace and security in Northeast Asia and the rest of the world,” the North’s spokesman said.

The July 27, 1953, cease-fire ending the Korean War established the 2.5-mile-wide demilitarized zone (DMZ) dividing the peninsula. There have been periodic talks since then about establishing a peace treaty, but they have failed to make progress.

In the absence of a treaty, the two Koreas remain technically at war with hundreds of thousands of troops facing off across the DMZ, including 32,500 U.S. troops. Since 2000, the two countries have sought to reconcile as South Korea has pursued a policy of engagement with its communist neighbor.

The nuclear standoff began in 2002 after U.S. officials accused the North of running a secret uranium enrichment program.

The North has since withdrawn from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and made moves that would allow it to create more radioactive materials for atomic bombs.

In February, North Korea asserted that it had nuclear weapons, but the Stalinist state hasn’t performed any known tests that would confirm its arsenal.

The North’s delegation to the talks, led by Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan, arrived in Beijing yesterday, Japan’s Kyodo news service reported.

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