The Koreas Will Talk

North Korea, North Korea flag, nuclear, atom
South Korea announced plans Monday to hold high-level talks with North Korea next week after President Bush gave diplomatic pressure a "good chance" of succeeding in persuading the communist nation to give up its nuclear ambitions.

In a telephone message, South Korean Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun accepted the North Korean offer to hold negotiations April 27-29, his office said.

The announcement came days before the United States, North Korea and China were expected to meet in separate talks in Beijing to discuss the North's suspected nuclear weapons programs. Those talks could take place as early as this week.

Meanwhile, the New York Times is reporting that the Bush administration is divided over what approach to take towards North Korea, much as it was reportedly split over how to handle Iraq.

While no leading official is advocating military action yet, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has circulated a document suggesting the U.S. team with China to depose North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, the Times reports. That approach contrasts with the State Department-supported method of trying to convince Kim to shelve his alleged weapons programs.

Along with the United States, regional neighbors China, Japan and South Korea oppose a nuclear-armed North Korea. Mr. Bush cited that unanimity of purpose — if not of strategy — as reason for optimism.

"I believe that all four of us working together have a good chance of convincing North Korea to abandon her ambitions to develop nuclear arsenals," Mr. Bush told reporters in Fort Hood, Texas.

North Korea has accused the United States of planning to invade, and said the U.S.-led war against Iraq was proof that it needed a strong military deterrent. Like Iraq, North Korea is also a member of the "axis of evil" listed by Mr. Bush.

"If enemies invade our inviolable sky, land and seas even an inch, destroy the aggressors with merciless annihilating blows," read one slogan carried by its newspapers, KCNA, the country's news agency, said in an English-language report. North Korea routinely issues such belligerent rhetoric.

Washington says it does not plan to invade, and has said for months that a diplomatic solution to the nuclear issue was possible. However, it has not ruled out a military option.

The nuclear dispute flared in October, when U.S. officials said North Korea admitted to having a secret nuclear program in violation of a 1994 accord. The U.S. cut off fuel supplies provided under the accord, prompting North Korea to expel international nuclear inspectors.

South Korea has sought to restart the inter-Korean talks, which the North had broken off in recent weeks.

The two Koreas initially arranged to hold Cabinet-level talks earlier this month, but those talks were canceled when Pyongyang failed to confirm them. North Korea also suspended two other working-level talks last month. On Saturday, North Korea proposed holding high-level talks later this month in its capital.

After insisting only on one-on-one talks with Washington, North Korea agreed this month to let China sit at the table. South Korea hopes it will eventually be involved in the negotiations, along with other countries, including Japan and Russia.

"North Korea's goal is to obtain security guarantees and economic aid, and economic aid cannot be given only by the United States," said Moon Hee-sang, South Korea's presidential chief of staff. He said security guarantees would also require the participation of neighboring countries.

Over the weekend, North Korea issued conflicting statements about whether it was reprocessing more than 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods at its main nuclear complex in Yongbyon.

The first statement suggested it was reprocessing the rods, which might have prompted the United States to cancel the planned talks. A subsequent statement indicated only that North Korea was on the verge of reprocessing the rods.

Intelligence experts say reprocessing spent fuel rods will enable North Korea to yield enough plutonium to build several nuclear bombs within months. Washington believes Pyongyang already has one or two bombs.