N. Korea Softens On Multilateral Talks

North Korea flag, atom, and nuclear energy
North Korea hinted Saturday it could accept U.S. demands for multilateral talks to discuss the communist country's suspected nuclear weapons program.

"If the U.S. is ready to make a bold switchover in its Korea policy for a settlement of the nuclear issue, the DPRK will not stick to any particular dialogue format," the North's KCNA news agency quoted a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying.

DPRK stands for Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the North's official name.

The announcement might herald a dramatic change in policy in North Korea. Until now, the North has insisted on only direct talks with Washington to negotiate a nonaggression treaty.

U.S. officials say North Korea poses a global danger and have rejected one-on-one talks, saying the standoff should be solved with the participation of other countries. Russia, China, Japan and South Korea could all be threatened if North Korea starts building nuclear weapons, they say.

"The solution to the issue depends on what is the real intention of the U.S.," said the spokesman, who was not identified by name.

"It is possible to solve the issue if the U.S. sincerely approaches the dialogue," the spokesman added. "What matters is the U.S."

The comments were of a much softer tone than other remarks from North Korea in recent weeks. That country has repeatedly accused the United States of planning to invade the communist country once it is done fighting in Iraq.

It has warned this would lead to nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula.

A senior South Korean foreign ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, described the North's comments on the talks as a "step forward."

North Korea's possible change in position came as the United States is expected to shift more attention toward it as the war in Iraq nears a conclusion.

On Friday, North Korea said it would never give up its nuclear programs. The North compared U.N. inspections to "taking off our pants" and giving Washington an excuse to invade.

U.S. President George W. Bush has dubbed North Korea as part of an "axis of evil" with Iraq and Iran. He has said he seeks to resolve the nuclear standoff with North Korea diplomatically, but has not ruled out a military solution.

The standoff 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.

The United States and its allies stopped oil shipments to the North, which retaliated by moving to restart a nuclear plant and withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

On Wednesday, the U.N. Security Council said it was concerned about the nuclear dispute. The council could eventually impose sanctions against the North if a diplomatic solution is not found.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun on Saturday urged North Korea to hold talks to resolve the crisis.

"When the North comes out as a responsible member of the international community, we and the international community will not hold back on all necessary assistance," Roh's office quoted the president as saying.

South Korea, which is a close ally of the United States, hopes to persuade isolated North Korea to scrap its nuclear programs in return for aid and better ties with the outside world.

Roh, who took office in February, said he would discuss the issue with Bush when he visits Washington next month for their first summit. He said he also plans to meet with the leaders of China, Russia and Japan soon.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov was quoted as telling the Interfax news agency Friday that the government has ordered officials to work out "preventive measures" to defend national interests and the population in the country's Far East, should the crisis on the Korean Peninsula spin out of control.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il reportedly inspected a military base on Friday.

The North's KCNA news agency said Saturday that Kim inspected Unit 205 of the Korean People's Army and told officers there, "No forces on earth can match this might of the People's Army." KCNA earlier reported that Kim visited an air force base Thursday.