US 'interest' in N Korea's move on talks


NORTH KOREA: North Korea has moved toward US calls for multilateral talks on its suspected nuclear arms plans and Washington voiced interest, saying it would follow up through diplomatic channels.

The North Korean comments on Saturday could mark a breakthrough in the nuclear standoff just days after US-led forces removed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from power in a war the South Korean president said had "petrified" the North.

"If the US is ready to make a bold switchover in its Korea policy for a settlement of the nuclear issue, the DPRK will not stick to any particular dialogue format," the North's KCNA news agency quoted a Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying.

Until now, North Korea has insisted on bilateral talks.

Washington, which lumps communist North Korea in an "axis of evil" with Iraq and Iran for seeking weapons of mass destruction, wants talks that also include regional players South Korea, Japan, Russia and China.

"We noted the statement with interest," US State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said on Saturday, adding: "We expect to follow up through appropriate diplomatic channels." The United States and North Korea do not have formal diplomatic relations, but exchange messages through diplomatic channels in New York. The United States can also work through intermediaries such as Russia and China.

The North's spokesman did not specify what would constitute a "bold switchover" but the impoverished, energy-starved North has demanded security guarantees and aid in the past.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun reiterated on Sunday that he would make every effort to solve North Korea's nuclear crisis in a peaceful manner.

"I am confident we can resolve the nuclear issue peacefully through dialogue and diplomatic channels," he told a ceremony commemorating Korea's interim government in exile during Japanese colonial rule in the early 1900s.

Kim Jung-roh, deputy spokesman at the South Korean Unification Ministry, said Seoul had expected North Korea to shift its position gradually.

"Also, as the Iraq war is coming to an end faster than expected, North Korea has less options to take," he said.

Mr Roh told the Washington Post in an interview published on Friday that the US-led Iraq war has had a profound impact on North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and other North Korean officials.

"Especially watching the recent Iraqi war, I'm sure they are very much terrified ... petrified by the Iraqi war," the newspaper quoted him as saying.

North Korea has said it will be the next US target after Iraq, something Washington denies. It says it wants a diplomatic solution to the nuclear crisis.

Underscoring its fears, the North lashed out at Washington yesterday, accusing it of threatening world peace and security and said the danger of a war on the Korean peninsula was becoming real.