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South Korea urges flexibility over nukes
Updated: 2005-02-25 23:52

South Korea's President Roh Moo-hyun urged South Koreans on Friday to be calm following North Korea's recent claim that it has nuclear weapons, and he said it will take both flexibility and a principled stand to persuade the country to abandon its atomic weapons program.

In a major policy speech before the National Assembly, Roh also assured that South Korea's alliance with the United States was more stable than ever, saying his government's policy of "saying what we want to say and argue what we want to argue" has made its relations with Washington healthier.

"Although an unexpected development occurred, it doesn't greatly change the fundamental structure" of the nuclear standoff, Roh said in a speech marking the second anniversary of his inauguration.

He was referring to North Korea's Feb. 10 announcement that it has nuclear bombs and will boycott six-nation nuclear disarmament talks. The claim about having nuclear weapons could not be verified independently.

"We will be flexible but won't lose our principled stance," Roh said.

He did not elaborate, but he urged rival political parties to stand behind his government, warning that North Korea might capitalize on "division and conflict."

Roh's emphasis on flexibility and principle appeared to embrace two divided camps — Roh's liberal ruling party that stresses reconciliation with the North to help it open up and democratize, and his conservative critics, who accuse Roh of being too soft on the North.

Meanwhile, Japan's Kyodo news agency reported that China has asked Tokyo to persuade the United States to be more flexible in the talks.

Beijing made the request after a visit to Pyongyang earlier this month by Wang Jiarui, the head of the Chinese Communist Party's International Department, Kyodo reported, citing multiple anonymous sources. The report did not say what point China wanted the United States to be more flexible on.

Japan's Foreign Ministry said it was unaware of such a request, a ministry spokeswoman said on condition of anonymity.

North Korea's Feb. 10 statement flouted the United States, South Korea and their allies seek to end the North's nuclear weapons programs through the talks.

Since 2003, Beijing has hosted three rounds of negotiations involving China, the two Koreas, the United States, Russia and Japan, with little progress reported. A fourth round scheduled for September was canceled because North Korea refused to attend, citing what it calls a "hostile" U.S. policy.

Negotiators from the United States, Japan and South Korea are to meet in Seoul on Saturday to try to revive the talks.

U.S. officials urged the allies to take "coordinated" actions, warning that North Korea could try to exploit divisions if the nations participating in the multilateral discussions do not adopt a unified approach.

On Monday, North Korea hinted at a possible compromise, telling a Chinese envoy the government would return to the negotiating table if certain unspecified conditions are met.

In previous talks, North Korea has demanded more aid and a peace treaty with Washington in exchange for giving up its nuclear program.

The United States is demanding that the North immediately dismantle all nuclear facilities.

One of the thorniest issues of the six-party talks is whether North Korea will allow inspections to verify if — as Washington claims — it is running a clandestine uranium enrichment program in addition to its plutonium-based weapons facilities.

South Korea's intelligence agency said it believed that North Korea has not begun producing weapons-grade uranium because increased international surveillance has prevented it from importing enough components.

"We judge that North Korea has not yet built or possessed HEU (highly enriched uranium) as it has not yet reached the stage of building a HEU factory," the National Intelligence Service told a National Assembly meeting Thursday.

The comment was confirmed by an agency spokesman Friday.

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