N. Korea signals readiness to discuss missile conflict

U.S., Japan, South Korea may be invited to talks


TOKYO -- The crisis over a possible long-range missile test by North Korea might be easing after the Communist government said it was ready to negotiate with "hostile nations" like the United States, Japan and South Korea, which have adamantly opposed the missile launch.

In a statement carried by North Korea's foreign news agency, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said: "As regards the missile issue, we are always ready for negotiation if the hostile nations honestly ask for it out of an intention to alleviate our concern."

The statement was the first conciliatory gesture by North Korea in a tense, monthlong conflict in which the United States, Japan and South Korea threatened to cut off all foreign aid and remittances if North Korea proceeded with the test.

State Department spokesman James P. Rubin responded to the statement by saying, "We've seen a number of statements that have hopeful elements to it, but we're in the business of focusing on commitments made through the formal diplomatic process."

Intelligence officials have said the missile North Korea plans to test-fire was an advanced version of the Taepodong rocket it launched last year. The new Taepodong II has greater accuracy and range and theoretically could reach Alaska or Hawaii, they said.

While some Western and Asian embassy officials in Japan and South Korea said the statement paves the way for a diplomatic solution to the crisis, others warned against reading too much into it.

"The missile crisis doesn't appear to be worsening, but we still have a long way to go before it's over," said one South Korean diplomat.

Some diplomats said it was futile to interpret such statements by North Korea as having any meaning. "This is a very dangerous country that makes a promise not to do something one day and totally reneges the next," said a Western diplomat.

The first sign that North Korea might be softening its position came Monday when the Cable News Network reported that officials close to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il had expressed optimism that a diplomatic solution could be reached.

"If the visitor comes and offers us a cake, we'll respond with a cake," CNN quoted Kim Yong Sun, a secretary of Pyongyang's Korea Workers Party, as saying. "But if somebody comes with a sword or knife, we'll respond with a knife."

The United States and South Korea have been conducting joint military operations near the heavily fortified border separating North and South Korea. North Korea has warned that the exercises could lead to war.

In its statement yesterday, North Korea said it has been compelled to develop missiles because the United States keeps troops and weapons in South Korea and harbors intentions to invade the North.

U.S. officials have said that North Korea, which is in dire financial straits and suffering from widespread famine, is using the missile-test threat to gain economic aid and concessions.

The officials said the Clinton administration has proposed lifting an embargo on trade between the two countries and more relief aid in exchange for a moratorium on missile tests.

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