For months, North Korea demanded direct talks with the United States about the communist nation's nuclear programs. But on Saturday, the North signaled that it would be willing to accept multilateral talks — the only format acceptable to the Bush administration.
"North Korea's softening position seems to have mainly come because it wasn't in an advantageous position internationally," Ra Jong-il, the security adviser, told reporters.
Analysts have speculated that a long and difficult war in Iraq would encourage North Korea to resist U.S. and international pressure to open up its nuclear facilities for inspection.
"This war on Iraq seems to have become a significant opportunity in deciding the landscape of international politics," Ra said.
South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun's office said in a statement that the North's comments over the weekend were in response to efforts by Seoul and other nations to resolve the nuclear crisis peacefully.
"We consider the North Korea's statement as a suggestion it could accept multilateral talks and we plan to continue making efforts to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue peacefully through dialogue," it said.
Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun said Monday his government believes that the multilateral talks should involve six countries — North and South Korea, the United States, China, Russia, and Japan, according to Yonhap.
North Korea has demanded a nonaggression treaty with the United States, something the Bush administration has rejected, though it has said it could offer some form of written security guarantee.
North Korea also wants economic aid and has accused the United States of planning to invade after the war in Iraq.
Roh's National Defense Adviser Kim Hee-sang dismissed such concerns on Monday, citing a strong U.S.-South Korea alliance.
Even if Washington wants to launch military action the North, "the United States would not do so without the consent from South Korea," he said.
In comments reported by the North's KCNA news agency on Saturday, a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman said North Korea "will not stick to any particular dialogue format" if the United States "is ready to make a bold switchover in its Korea policy for a settlement of the nuclear issue."
The apparent North Korean shift could ease tension on the Korean Peninsula following recent North Korean military maneuvers, U.S.-South Korean war games and Washington's dispatch of additional long-range bombers to the region.
On Sunday, President Bush welcomed the North Korean statement.
"That's very good news for the people in the Far East who are concerned about North Korea and their willingness to develop nuclear weapons," the president said in Washington.
Mr. Bush had dubbed North Korea a part of an "axis of evil" with Iraq and Iran. He has said he seeks to deal with North Korea peacefully and diplomatically but has not ruled out military action.
Japan's Deputy Foreign Minister Hitoshi Tanaka also welcomed North Korea's comments and said Tokyo wants to play a central role in finding a solution to the crisis.
On Monday, a top Russian diplomat criticized the United States for its unwillingness to hold direct talks with Pyongyang.
"The United States would rather stay on the margins, taking part in negotiations led by a group of countries," the Interfax news agency quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov as saying. "Such an approach has no prospects, and we will not get involved with it."
The nuclear dispute flared in October when U.S. officials said North Korea admitted it had a clandestine nuclear program in violation of a 1994 agreement with the United States.