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Outgoing S. Korea President Urges Direct US-North Korea Talks - 2003-02-24

Outgoing South Korean President Kim Dae-jung urged the United States Monday to hold direct talks with North Korea to resolve the Korean Peninsula's mounting nuclear crisis. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is bringing a very different message to Mr. Kim's successor.

In a nationally televised farewell speech Monday, South Korea's outgoing president, Kim Dae-jung, said direct talks between Washington and Pyongyang were vital to resolving the dispute over North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

This notion is in contrast with Washington's desire for multilateral talks that include North Korea's neighbors, a policy U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell will be pushing when he meets with Mr. Kim's successor on Tuesday.

President Kim, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for pursuing better relations with the North and holding a summit with Northern leader Kim Jong Il, also called on Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

The nuclear crisis erupted in October, when U.S. officials said North Korea had admitted to pursuing a secret nuclear weapons program, in violation of international non-proliferation pacts. The crisis escalated as Pyongyang kicked out U.N. nuclear inspectors, pulled out of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and threatened to resume missile testing.

Pyongyang is demanding a non-aggression treaty with the United States to guarantee its security, and says it wants to discuss the matter only with Washington. Washington says it will talk to the North, but it also wants North Korea's neighbors - Japan, China and South Korea - to join in the dialogue.

Secretary of State Powell delivered this message to Japanese and Chinese officials over the past few days, and this is expected to be the dominant theme in Mr. Powell's talks with the new president, Roh Moo-hyun.

In his address Monday, President Kim called the American military presence "beneficial" to Korea, and said that even if the two Koreas should eventually reunify, the American military should stay. The North and South have remained technically at war since 1953, when the Korean War ended with a ceasefire instead of a peace treaty, and the United States has based troops in the South ever since to counter any threat from the North. There are currently 37,000 U.S. troops based in the South.

Mr. Kim also expressed strong support for his successor. President-elect Roh has pledged to continue Mr. Kim's policy of engaging Pyongyang in dialogue, and promoting joint projects aimed at encouraging peaceful ties and helping the North's impoverished economy.