- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 19, 2009

SEOUL | North Korean leader Kim Jong-il reportedly said Friday his country is ready to engage in multilateral talks, the latest move in a diplomatic chess game with the U.S. and regional powers seeking to rid Pyongyang of nuclear weapons.

“North Korea would like to solve relevant issues through bilateral and multilateral talks,” China’s official Xinhua News Agency quoted Mr. Kim as telling a special envoy sent by Chinese President Hu Jintao.

Mr. Kim’s remarks heightened the possibility of Pyongyang’s return to stalled six-party disarmament negotiations it defiantly quit earlier this year.

Though Mr. Kim did not appear to specify the forum - which involves the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Russia and Japan - North Korea watchers think that is the signal he is sending.

Mr. Kim’s mention of multilateral talks “is seen as North Korea’s intention to return to the six-nation negotiations,” said analyst Lee Sang-hyun of the Sejong Institute, a security think tank outside Seoul.

North Korea has been insisting on one-on-one negotiations with the United States over its nuclear programs. Washington, which had strictly demanded the North first return to the multilateral negotiating table, is now, however, mulling direct talks in what appears to be a subtle policy shift to help break the nuclear impasse and eventually resume the six-party discussions.

China, North Korea’s principal ally, has hosted the forum since 2003. The last session was held in December last year.

North Korea released two detained U.S. journalists last month in an apparent goodwill overture to Washington during a visit by former President Bill Clinton. It also subsequently released a detained South Korean worker and four captured South Korean fishermen and called for the resumption of stalled tourism projects with Seoul.

Mr. Kim also told the Chinese envoy, Dai Bingguo, that North Korea “is committed to safeguarding peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula,” Xinhua reported from the North Korean capital, Pyongyang.

North Korea has said it cannot give up its nuclear arsenal as long as the U.S. continues with what Pyongyang says is a “hostile policy” and plans for a nuclear attack. Washington denies it has any such intentions.

In a letter Mr. Dai handed to Mr. Kim, Mr. Hu reiterated Beijing’s stance that the Korean Peninsula should be denuclearized and said China is ready to spare no efforts to work with North Korea to realize that goal, Xinhua said.

The meeting comes amid recent speculation of a possible visit to Pyongyang by Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao early next month, although there has been no confirmation from Beijing. Also, the North has invited Stephen Bosworth, the U.S. special envoy on North Korea, to visit the country, an invitation Washington says it is considering.

State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said Thursday the U.S. will “make some judgments in the very near future” on the bilateral talks offer after consultations with other countries.

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