North Korea says it will agree to multilateral talks on its suspected nuclear weapons program if Washington first holds one-on-one discussions.

In an apparent softening of its position, North Korea is indicating it is open to multi-lateral talks, a structure that Washington has insisted on for any discussions with Pyongyang.

A North Korean foreign ministry statement, released by Pyongyang's official news agency on Saturday, says it would consider the multilateral format if Washington first agrees to face-to-face discussions.

The statement criticized the United States for not responding to what North Korea calls the "new and bold proposal" it made in Beijing last month in talks with U-S and Chinese officials. The United States has said it is considering the proposal and discussing it with its allies.

In Tokyo, Japan's Foreign Ministry welcomes the latest statement from Pyongyang, saying it appears that North Korea is willing to continue a dialogue on its efforts to build nuclear weapons.

And in Beijing, the Chinese government on Sunday called for continued discussions to solve the dispute peacefully.

The statement from Pyongyang comes a day after President Bush and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi jointly warned Pyongyang about developing nuclear weapons. After their meeting in the United States Friday, Mr. Bush said any escalation by North Korea of its nuclear programs could make it necessary to take tougher measures against Pyongyang.

Japanese politician Takenori Kanzaki, head of the Komei Party, said those measures would include economic sanctions. Mr. Kanzaki said if Pyongyang's nuclear development poses a threat to regional security, then Japan will be forced to take resolute actions that would include economic sanctions.

The Yonhap news agency said on Sunday that South Korea hopes to hold talks soon with the United States and Japan to coordinate policy on North Korea. The report, quoting an unnamed South Korean government official, says the talks would follow a June 7 meeting in Tokyo between South Korea President Roh Moo-Hyun and the Japanese prime minister.

Regional tensions have been high since last October, when the United States said North Korea had admitted having a nuclear weapons program in violation of several international accords.