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N. Korea Showing Willingness for Talks - 2004-01-07

Japan and South Korea say North Korea's latest offer to freeze its nuclear programs could pave the way for more talks on ending the nuclear crisis. South Korean Foreign Minister Yoon Young-kwan says Pyongyang's latest offer to halt its nuclear weapons program shows its willingness to talk and could help restart multilateral negotiations.

North Korean officials met in August in Beijing with diplomats from China, South Korea, Russia, Japan and the United States - but no progress was made. All six nations have agreed to meet again - but North Korea has yet to confirm a date despite intense diplomacy.

On Tuesday, Pyongyang offered what it called a "bold concession" to ease the nuclear dispute. The offer amounted to the same deal the North put forth in December: Pyongyang would freeze nuclear activities and return to talks, in exchange for U.S. aid, security guarantees and being dropped from a U.S. list of terrorism-sponsoring nations.

Washington had rejected the offer the first time, saying no concessions or incentives until North Korea agrees to permanently and verifiably dismantle nuclear programs, which violate international accords. This time, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell called the offer "interesting" and "positive" in tone and he is hopeful the next round of talks will yield some results.

Japan also struck a positive, but cautious, note. The Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda says it is good to spell out an idea to move things along. But he says it is more important what North Korea does and that should be watched closely.

Tensions flared 15 months ago when U.S. officials said Pyongyang had admitted having a secret nuclear weapons program in violation of international agreements. Since then, North Korea has withdrawn from the nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty, kicked out U.N. monitors and reactivated its main nuclear facility, Yongbyon.

Meanwhile an unofficial group of American scientists and legislative aides is in North Korea hoping to visit Yongbyon. If permitted, they will be the first outsiders to view North Korea's capabilities in a year.