- The Washington Times - Friday, June 17, 2005

SEOUL — North Korean leader Kim Jong-il said yesterday his communist nation could rejoin disarmament talks as soon as next month and might someday renounce nuclear weapons, but needs to be treated with respect first.

The reclusive Mr. Kim also said he harbored no ill will toward President Bush and would find him “interesting to talk to” — referring to the United States in rare flattering terms that raised hopes of a possible resolution of the standoff over Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

The United States dismissed the overture, which was made in remarks to a South Korean envoy, saying Mr. Kim needed to set a date and make a more concrete commitment to nuclear negotiations.

Mr. Kim’s comments came during a surprise meeting yesterday with South Korean Unification Minister Chung Dong-young — his first contact with a top official from Seoul since April 2002, and one he clearly held in part to pass a message to Washington. Mr. Kim seldom meets with visiting dignitaries.

“If it is certain that the United States is respecting the North as a partner, North Korea could come to the six-party talks as early as July,” Mr. Kim said, according to Mr. Chung.

But Mr. Kim added the North’s return would need to be “further negotiated” with Washington, Mr. Chung said.

The North Korean ruler also said he would welcome international nuclear inspections and rejoin the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) if the standoff was resolved.

In late 2002, U.S. officials accused the North of running a secret uranium enrichment program in violation of an earlier accord. North Korea kicked out U.N. nuclear inspectors in late December, then withdrew from the NPT in early 2003. Three rounds of six-nation talks between China, Japan, Russia, the United States and the two Koreas have failed to resolve the crisis.

But Mr. Kim said yesterday that “if the regime’s security is guaranteed, there is no reason to possess a single nuclear weapon,” according to Mr. Chung.

U.S. officials repeatedly have asserted they have no intention of invading North Korea.

Though the rhetoric has often been pointed between Washington and Pyongyang, Mr. Kim said he “has no reason to think badly” of Mr. Bush, and even asked Mr. Chung if the U.S. president should be addressed by a Korean honorific that roughly translates as “his excellency.”

Mr. Bush recently referred to Mr. Kim using the honorific “Mr.” — a softened tone after earlier comments labeling the North Korean leader a “tyrant” and lumping his country in an “axis of evil” that included Iran and Saddam Hussein-era Iraq.

Mr. Kim said Russian President Vladimir Putin had told him Mr. Bush was a “good man to talk to.”

“I would find him interesting to talk to,” Mr. Kim said of Mr. Bush. “I’ve been thinking favorably of the United States since the Clinton administration.”

In the past, the North has called Mr. Bush a “political imbecile.”

Positive tone aside, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli reiterated that Washington wanted the talks to resume without any preconditions.

“The important point to keep in mind is that until we have a date, we don’t have a date,” he told reporters. “So, reports aside, the bottom line we’re looking for and I think that is important is actually getting back to the talks and engaging substantively.”

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