SEOUL, South Korea - North Korea said Wednesday it would return to nuclear disarmament talks in an effort to get access to frozen overseas bank accounts, a vital source of hard currency for the nation.
Stepping back from moves after conducting its first-ever nuclear test three weeks ago, the North said it hoped to resolve US financial restrictions at resumed six-nation arms talks that it has boycotted for a year.
But Pyongyang made only indirect mention of last month's headline-grabbing atomic test and didn't say whether it remained committed to an earlier agreement to abandon its nuclear ambitions.
North Korea also emphasized that a direct meeting with the US during previously unpublicized negotiations Tuesday in Beijing, had made the diplomatic breakthrough possible. US President George W. Bush, who has long shunned direct talks with Pyongyang, credited China's mediation for the agreement.
US officials had sought to rally other countries to prevent the North from doing business abroad, saying all transactions involving Pyongyang were suspected of being involved in counterfeiting and money laundering.
On Wednesday, the North's Foreign Ministry said Pyongyang decided to return to the arms talks "on the premise that the issue of lifting financial sanctions will be discussed and settled between the (North) and the US within the framework of the six-party talks."
The North barely alluded to its October 9 nuclear test in the statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency, noting that the country "recently took a self-defensive countermeasure against the US daily increasing nuclear threat and financial sanctions against it."
The nuclear talks - which include China, Japan, Russia, the United States and the two Koreas - reached an agreement in September 2005 where the North pledged to abandon its nuclear program in exchange for aid and security guarantees, but there was little progress toward implementing the accord.
The US had previously maintained that the financial issue was a matter of law enforcement separate from the nuclear talks. But in Beijing on Tuesday, the chief US nuclear envoy, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, said Washington agreed to take up the matter in the revived arms negotiations.
However, there were conflicting signals from the United States. White House press secretary Tony Snow later insisted the United States made no promises to link the financial dispute to the nuclear one, but only agreed that "issues like that may be discussable at some future time."
The North emphasized Wednesday that the breakthrough on returning to the nuclear talks was made possible by that bilateral meeting with the Americans, something Pyongyang had long sought.
The US envoy Hill said Tuesday that the nuclear talks could resume as easy as November or December, but acknowledged the negotiations still had a long way to go.
In Washington, Bush cautiously welcomed Tuesday's deal and thanked the Chinese for brokering it. But he said the agreement would not sidetrack US efforts to enforce sanctions adopted by the UN Security Council to punish Pyongyang for its October 9 nuclear test. Those measures ban the North's weapons trade and other items such as luxury goods.
In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki said Japan will maintain sanctions on the North until it abandons its nuclear development.
South Korea's Vice Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan also told lawmakers Wednesday in Seoul that "just coming to the talks itself won't affect the level of Security Council sanctions" against North Korea.
Meanwhile, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun announced a shakeup Wednesday of top Cabinet security positions, naming a new foreign minister, unification minister, defense minister and spy chief. However, the government has said it doesn't plan to veer from its course of reconciliation with the North - despite facing harsh domestic criticism in the wake of the nuclear test.