|Chung Dong-young (l) with Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang|
On his return to Seoul Friday, South Korean Unification Minister Chung Dong-young announced a possible breakthrough in the North Korean nuclear weapons stalemate.
Mr. Chung says, during a meeting in Pyongyang Friday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il expressed willingness to return to multinational nuclear weapons talks as soon as July. However, he says Mr. Kim wants the United States to respect Pyongyang "as a partner" in the talks.
Mr. Chung did not elaborate on what that means, but said Pyongyang requires further negotiations with Washington.
For a year, North Korea has boycotted multilateral talks involving China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States, aimed at ending its nuclear weapons capabilities, citing a hostile U.S. attitude. Despite prior pledges not to build nuclear weapons, it has said it is adding to its nuclear arsenal.
Mr. Chung also says North and South Korea remain in basic agreement that the Korean peninsula should be free of nuclear weapons, in accordance with a 1992 declaration between the two countries.
Mr. Chung says Kim Jong Il also said that, if the nuclear issue were resolved, North Korea would once again join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and allow inspections by the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency.
The Stalinist country, in 2003, became the only nation ever to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, shortly after expelling international inspectors.
Mr. Chung says he told the North Korean leader of recent signs that President Bush had adopted a softened tone toward him, referring to him by the honorific title of "Mr. Kim Jong Il."
Mr. Chung says the North Korean leader told him he has no reason to dislike President Bush, and expressed hopes for mutual respect.
President Bush has called Mr. Kim a "tyrant," referring to North Korea as part of an "Axis of Evil" with Iran, and Iraq when it was under Saddam Hussein.
The next step for the two Koreas begins Tuesday, when Mr. Chung hosts four days of Cabinet-level meetings between the two countries in Seoul.