North Korea will agree to abandon its nuclear arms program if the US reaffirms the contents of a 2000 joint communique which declared they had "no hostile intention" towards each other, diplomatic sources with close ties to Pyongyang said yesterday.
The possible way out of a stand-off over North Korea's nuclear arms program comes a day after Washington offered dialogue with the reclusive communist state, but refused to offer incentives for scrapping its atomic ambitions.
In public, at least, the North maintained its fierce anti-American rhetoric and has yet to respond to Washington's offer, but a diplomatic source with close ties to Pyongyang suggested it was softening its stance.
North Korea also sent South Korea a telegram yesterday proposing holding the next regular minister-level talks with South Korea between Jan. 21 and 24.
"Reaffirming the joint communique issued in October 2000 would suffice," the source said.
"The North would agree to abandon its nuclear program if the United States agrees to go back to the joint communique and re-affirm it."
In the 2000 statement, North Korea and the US vowed to end decades of hostility and work for better ties.
Shortly after its signing, then-US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Pyongyang to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.
Her trip was intended to lay the ground work for a visit to North Korea by then-President Bill Clinton, but his term ended before the trip materialized.
Tensions on the divided peninsula have risen since US officials said in October that North Korea had admitted pursuing a nuclear arms program in violation of a 1994 pact, and escalated further after Pyongyang threatened to reactivate a nuclear plant capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium.
North Korea kept the world waiting yesterday for a direct response to the US offer of talks, repeating stock demands and denunciations of Washington which is insisting Pyongyang take the next step.
A day after the US changed tack and offered a dialogue with the East Asian communist state, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said on Wednesday that "the ball is in North Korea's court".
But North Korea has not so far acknowledged either Washington's offer or Monday's ultimatum from the UN nuclear watchdog to readmit the inspectors it expelled last week.
Instead, North Korean radio repeated Pyongyang's demand that Washington signs a non-aggression treaty to end the row.
US officials insisted the US would not dangle additional inducements to try to persuade Pyongyang to abandon a program believed to have spawned one or two nuclear weapons.
A US diplomat in Seoul said Washington "doesn't like the idea of carrots" because Pyongyang has broken previous nuclear pledges.
"The whole idea of a non-aggression treaty doesn't ring well with Americans. US aggression is not the issue. The issue is North Korea's nuclear program."
President George W. Bush and other top officials have repeatedly said the US has no intention of attacking North Korea, whose military is the world's fifth largest and is deployed offensively on its border with South Korea.
US officials insisted that any talks the US has with the North Koreans would be restricted to how they plan to abandon their nuclear ambitions and that Washington would not allow the nuclear program to become a bargaining chip.