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North Korea indicates willingness to talk

Multilateral discussions on its alleged nuclear weapons program could ease tensions.

©Associated Press

April 13, 2003

SEOUL, South Korea -- After months of insisting on direct talks with Washington, North Korea signaled Saturday it would be willing to accept U.S. demands for multilateral discussions over the communist country's alleged nuclear weapons program.

The shift is likely to ease tension on the Korean Peninsula, where recent South Korea-U.S. war games and Washington's decision to send additional long-range bombers to the region have stoked fears in the North of an imminent U.S. invasion.

The North's KCNA news agency quoted a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying the country would not insist on a format for talks if the United States made a "bold switchover" in it's policy for settling the nuclear issue. He did not say what was meant by a "bold switchover."

The United States expressed interest in the comment from North Korea, which could become a first step toward talks on ending the nuclear standoff.

"We have noted that statement with interest and we expect to follow up through the appropriate diplomatic channels," State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said Saturday.

The softer tone came as the war winds down in Iraq and the United States is expected to turn its attention to North Korea.

President Bush has dubbed North Korea as part of an "axis of evil" with Iraq and Iran. He has said he seeks to deal with North Korea diplomatically but has not ruled out military action.

The crisis erupted in October when U.S. officials said North Korea admitted it had a clandestine nuclear program in violation of a 1994 agreement.

The United States and its allies stopped oil shipments to the North, which retaliated by moving to restart a nuclear plant and withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

U.S. officials say North Korea poses a global danger and the standoff should be solved with the participation of Russia, China, Japan and South Korea.

But until now, Pyongyang has rejected multilateral talks, insisting on one-on-one meetings to negotiate a nonaggression treaty.

North Korea had also said it would never give up its nuclear programs and compared U.N. inspections to "taking off our pants" and giving Washington an excuse to invade.

On Wednesday, the U.N. Security Council said it was concerned about the nuclear dispute. The council could eventually impose sanctions against the North if a diplomatic solution is not found.

The United States favors economic sanctions but Russia is opposed. However on Friday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov was quoted by Interfax as saying Moscow might reconsider if Pyongyang starts to consider producing or using nuclear weapons.

Interfax quoted Losyukov as saying the government has ordered officials to work out "preventive measures" to defend national interests should the Korean crisis spin out of control.

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