NKorea softens, willing to return to nuclear talks

SEOUL: North Korea today expressed willingness to return to six-nation nuclear disarmament negotiations it quit six months ago, but only after it talks directly to the United States to improve “hostile relations”.

Leader Kim Jong-II gave the commitment at a meeting late Monday with visiting Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, the North’s official news agency reported.

Highlighting the urgency of the issue, a South Korean source said the North appeared to be in the final stages of restoring plutonium-producing plants that it had shut down before abandoning the six-party talks.

“The hostile relations between the DPRK (North Korea) and the United States should be converted into peaceful ties through the bilateral talks without fail,” the agency paraphrased Kim as saying.

“We expressed our readiness to hold multilateral talks, depending on the outcome of the DPRK-US talks. The six-party talks are also included in the multilateral talks.” Kim said the North’s efforts to denuclearise the Korean peninsula remained unchanged. The official Xinhua news agency in China, which hosts the six-party forum, said the two leaders reached “vital consensus” on the issue.

Some analysts said the North did not want to snub China, its biggest trade partner and chief energy supplier, by spurning the talks. Meanwhile, they said Pyongyang’s willingness to scrap its cherished nuclear programme remains questionable to the international community.

The North, however, has long been pressing for bilateral talks with the United States, apparently in hopes of enhancing its international stature.