Sydney Morning Herald
North Korea has suggested it will drop its opposition to region-wide talks about its suspected nuclear weapons program and abandon its insistence on a non-aggression pact with the United States.
The diplomatic shift, signalled amid a smokescreen of belligerent warnings of readiness to fight a feared US pre-emptive strike, follows Pyongyang’s escape from rebuke at last week’s United Nations Security Council debate.
China and Russia, backers and suppliers of North Korea’s isolated Stalinist regime, used their weight as veto-wielding permanent members of the council to force the US to withdraw a critical resolution.
On Saturday, North Korea’s official news agency indicated the shift in a report quoting the Foreign Ministry of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as it is officially known.
“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,” a Foreign Ministry spokesman said.
“It is possible to solve the issue if the US sincerely approaches the dialogue,” the spokesman added. “What matters is the US.”
A senior South Korean Foreign Ministry official described the North’s comment as a “step forward”.
The new line was foreshadowed last Sunday when the North said it could no longer trust any promise of peace by the US and must rely on “tremendous military deterrent”.
Analysts in Washington, Seoul and Tokyo see this as a sign that the Pyongyang regime is dropping its insistence on a formal non-aggression treaty with the US in exchange for a return to safeguards on its nuclear facilities.
Since the nuclear crisis started last October, when the North allegedly admitted a covert uranium enrichment effort to a US envoy, Washington has rejected the non-aggression pact idea. The US has said that Pyongyang’s violation of a 1994 nuclear agreement showed it was an untrustworthy negotiating partner, and that in any case the Bush Administration could not get such a treaty ratified by the US Senate.
Instead the US has been pushing for regional negotiations, also involving South Korea, Japan, China and Russia, and possibly the European Union and Australia. China and Russia have been urging the US to talk directly with the North.
In the past 10 days the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, has emerged from seclusion during the war in Iraq and carried out inspections of frontline military units, suggesting he fears American attention will now turn to his country.
China is reported to have given only vague assurances about help in the event of an American strike. A Washington military think tank, Stratfor, has reported that Mr Kim made a secret two- or three-day visit to Beijing about March 19 to seek help from President Hu Jintao, who heads Beijing’s new “working group” on the North Korea crisis. The visit has not been confirmed by other sources.
Russia has also mixed toughness with its support for Mr Kim. On Saturday the Itar-Tass news agency quoted a senior official travelling in Japan with the Russian Defence Minister, Sergei Ivanov, as saying Russia did not have and could not have any defence obligations to North Korea.
The South Korean President, Roh Moo-hyun, has promised economic aid to the North if it co-operates.