SEOUL, South Korea -- In its first concession after months of hostility, North Korea signaled yesterday that it would consider President Bush's offer of written security assurances in return for the dismantling of its nuclear program.
The conciliatory statement, first reported by the North Korean news agency, marked an abrupt about-face for North Korea, which days earlier had ridiculed Bush's offer as "laughable" and "not worth considering."
There was speculation in Seoul that the change of heart was a result of pressure from China, which brokered six-party talks in August and has been trying to coax the North Koreans back to the table for another round of negotiations. The Chinese parliamentary leader, Wu Banggao, is scheduled to arrive in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang on Tuesday for a three-day trip during which the restarting of the talks are expected to be high on the agenda.
North Korea's move follows an even bigger concession by Bush, who said that the administration would consider giving North Korea written security assurances that the United States will not attack if the North dismantles its nuclear program.
Bush's offer falls short of what the North Koreans had been demanding -- a formal nonaggression pact -- but still represents a major turnaround for an administration that had insisted on the dismantling of weapons as a precondition for negotiations.
In Washington yesterday, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman confirmed that the North Koreans had responded to Bush's proposal.
"The North Koreans passed us a message late yesterday in the New York channel," said spokeswoman Susan Pittman, using the department's term for sporadic contacts between North Korean diplomats at the United Nations and officials at the State Department. "The message was similar to the Foreign Ministry statement.
"We hope that North Korea will return to the six-party talks in the near future to negotiate all the issues," she said.
In a statement attributed to a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, the North Korean news agency reported yesterday, "We are ready to consider President Bush's remark on a written nonaggression guarantee if it came from the intention to coexist with us and is something to positively operate on the realization of a package settlement proposal based on the principle of simultaneous actions."
Although the North Korean statement was terse and vaguely written, it marked a rare moment of civility after months of vituperation toward the United States, and it was roundly cheered in diplomatic quarters.
"Today's announcement is a huge advance," Kim Sung Han, a North Korea analyst at a think tank affiliated with the South Korean Foreign Ministry, told reporters in Seoul.
"We had expected North Korea to accept President Bush's proposal. It is a positive development ahead of new six-party talks," said Ban Ki Moon, foreign policy adviser to the South Korean president.
South Korea, China, Russia and Japan, all parties in the talks, have been pushing hard for the United States and North Korea to moderate their positions. North Korea is believed to be forging ahead as quickly as possible to build a nuclear weapon. The isolated Communist country said last month that it had completed extracting weapons-grade plutonium from nuclear-reactor fuel rods and that it might test a nuclear bomb shortly.
U.S. allies in the region -- particularly South Korea -- think that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is using the threats out of fear that he could become the target of a pre-emptive war, such as the one in Iraq this year. They also say the United States must offer security guarantees if the North Koreans are to disarm.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. Times staff writer Janet Hook in Washington contributed to this article.