Senior South Korean officials say North Korean leader may be willing to give up his country's missile capabilities in exchange for diplomatic ties with Washington. News of Mr. Kim's offer comes on the eve of four days of cabinet-level talks between South and North Korea.

South Korean Unification Minister Chung Dong-young told a cabinet meeting that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has offered to end North Korea's missile programs in exchange for formal ties with the United States.

The United States has never had diplomatic relations with North Korea, and has indicated in the past that it would be reluctant to improve relations with Pyongyang as long as it is building nuclear weapons.

Mr. Chung told ministers the North Korean leader made the offer during their meeting in Pyongyang last week. At the same meeting, Mr. Kim also said he would be willing to return to multi-lateral talks aimed at ending the nuclear-weapons program by July - if Washington "recognized and respected Pyongyang as a partner" in the talks.

Yuh Moonwan, with the private consulting firm the National Strategy Institute in Seoul, says Pyongyang's missile offer is a bluff, aimed at winning rewards from the international community.

Mr. Yuh says Pyongyang should face international pressure if it keeps refusing to scrap its nuclear-weapons capabilities.

North Korea has boycotted nuclear talks with South Korea, Japan, China, Russia and the United States for a year and says it will add to its nuclear arsenal. Sunday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice accused the North of making excuses to avoid fulfilling pledges to remain free of nuclear weapons.

But South Korean officials describe the meeting with Kim Jong Il as a success. They say they want to build on its momentum when Seoul holds cabinet-level talks with North Korea beginning Tuesday.

Besides seeking a firmer commitment from Pyongyang to return to nuclear talks, South Korean negotiators are also expected to discuss a new North Korean request for 150,000 tons of fertilizer to help the impoverished country grow food.

Gerald Bourke, with the U.N. World Food Program, says the fertilizer will help somewhat with the North's severe food shortages - but the country remains on the brink of an emergency.

"Prices for basic foodstuffs in private markets continue to surge," he said. "WFP is scraping the bottom of the barrel in terms of what it has in country."

South Korea has just shipped the 200,000 tons of fertilizer the North requested last month. It refused Pyongyang's earlier request for half a million tons, citing lack of progress on the nuclear issue.

Aid groups say famine killed hundreds of thousands of North Koreans in the mid-1990s. South Korea treats humanitarian aid to the North as a separate matter from the nuclear issue. But Seoul is coming under increased pressure from the United States to make aid contingent on North Korea's actions.