North Korea said yesterday it was ready to resume nuclear crisis talks at an early date if Washington agreed ahead of time to reward it for refreezing its nuclear weapons facilities.
As Seoul expressed doubt that new talks could take place this month as was initially hoped, Pyongyang's ruling Workers' Party newspaper Rodong Sinmun said that without a prior agreement, the talks could be even scrapped altogether.
"The six-way talks may be resumed at an early date or may be delayed or scuttled depending on how preparations are made for their resumption," the newspaper said in a commentary carried by the official Korean Central News Agency. "[The] ball is in the US court."
Months of diplomacy attempting to set up talks in December collapsed after Washington and Pyongyang failed to narrow their differences concerning the scope of the negotiations.
And efforts to convene the talks this month may not succeed, a top South Korean policymaker said.
President Roh Moo-Hyun's National Security Advisor Ra Jong-Yil said that scheduling challenges were posed by the extended holiday season in Russia that lasts well into January and Lunar New Year celebrations in China in late January.
Russia and China are six-way talks participants along with the US, Japan and the two Koreas.
"It may be difficult for the talks to be held in January because Russia has its Christmas holiday and China's Lunar New Year holiday is in January," Ra told journalists.
Diplomatic efforts to bring about a new round of talks in December unravelled amid differences over the scope of the negotiations.
North Korea accused the US of time-wasting, while Washington, which insists that Pyongyang must verifiably scrap its nuclear weapons, said North Korea had set preconditions.
Rodong Shinmun called for agreement in advance on what it referred to as "action at the first phase," which would include a nuclear freeze and concessions from Washington and its allies.
The commentary reflected demands made in a North Korean foreign ministry statement a month ago that referred to agreement on "first-phase actions" including the lifting of sanctions against North Korea and a resumption of energy aid in return for the nuclear freeze.
North Korea agreed in 1994 to mothball its Yongbyon nuclear complex, 90km north of Seoul, under a nuclear freeze agreement with the US, but fired up the facilities after the latest nuclear crisis erupted in October 2002.
Two US delegations are heading for North korea this week at the invitation of the communist state in an indication that Pyongyang is eager to engage Washington.
The US government has distanced itself from the delegations amid reports that one of the teams made up of academics and a scientist -- the other is from Congress -- is scheduled to become the first American group to visit Yongbyon since international inspectors were kicked out a year ago.