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North Korea Indicates Willingness to Return to Nuke Talks

Efforts to bring North Korea back to negotiations over its nuclear weapons seem to have taken a tentative step forward. South Korean officials are not entirely convinced a new meeting will be held soon, and Pyongyang itself is vague on the matter.

The United States says that North Korea expressed willingness to return to talks about its nuclear weapons programs at a meeting earlier this week in New York.

However, Kim Sung-chul at the South Korean Foreign Ministry on Wednesday downplayed hopes of talks, saying there is no sign that Pyongyang is departing from its previous position.

"That they are interested in the six party talks…. And they haven't indicated any specific dates for the resumption, or anything like that," said Kim Sung-chul.

And North Korea itself indicated that talks might not come soon. On Wednesday, an official North Korean news broadcast said that Pyongyang's return to the talks depended on the U.S. response to "our demand of creating conditions and an environment for the resumption of the talks."

Although the report did not specify those conditions, in the past Pyongyang has said it would not negotiate unless Washington changes what North Korea considers a hostile attitude. Pyongyang also demands economic aid and security guarantees in return for freezing its nuclear programs.

North Korea has met three times with Russia, China, the United States, South Korea and Japan to discuss ending its nuclear programs. But, for a year, it has refused to attend a fourth round. Pyongyang says it has nuclear weapons and will build more, but has never conducted a nuclear test.

Bruce Bennett, a researcher with the U.S. defense consulting firm RAND, believes North Korea's stalling probably is strategic. Speaking from Pyongyang's point of view, he says delay strengthens its position.

"Because I'm [Pyongyang] gaining strength," said Mr. Bennett. "I'm making more weapons, I'm gaining position within the community, people are starting to believe more that I've got nuclear weapons, and I'm empowered."

South Korea is expending considerable effort to bring its communist neighbor back to the talks.

On Friday, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun visits the White House to meet with President Bush. The two are expected to recommit to a peaceful solution to the North Korean nuclear issue and to discuss ways of presenting a united front in dealing with it.

Later this month, delegates from North Korea arrive in Seoul for cabinet-level talks expected to focus on bringing Pyongyang back to the table.

Chun Chae-Sung, an international security professor at Seoul National University, says the stakes for Seoul are very high.

"If the fourth round [of nuclear talks] fails, then we might not have any leverage. That makes us very desperate, which makes us search for a solution more desperately with the United States," said Chun Chae-Sung.

South Korea and the United States have set no formal deadline for the North to return to talks, but they have also said that waiting for Pyongyang's decision cannot go on indefinitely.

Washington has indicated it might refer the matter to the United Nations, and seek sanctions against the North for violating its past promises to not possess nuclear weapons. However, South Korea is reluctant to push for sanctions, fearful of doing anything that destabilizes the impoverished North.