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Last Updated: Monday, 14 April, 2003, 07:26 GMT 08:26 UK
Hopes rise over N Korean crisis
A North Korean soldier (l) looks at a South Korean soldier (r) at the border
South Korea is anxious to reduce tensions with the North
Hopes are rising for a peaceful solution to the North Korean nuclear stand-off, after both Seoul and Washington responded positively to an indication by Pyongyang that it was ready for talks.

A statement from South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun on Monday said the move showed the North was complying with international efforts to resolve the crisis.

"The government considers this as an indication that North Korea will accept multilateral talks," the statement said.

On Sunday, US President Bush also sounded a note of optimism on the issue, saying he saw progress being made.

But Mr Bush also reiterated that he wanted to see the Korean peninsula free of nuclear weapons.

If the US is ready to make a bold switchover in its Korea policy for a settlement of the nuclear issue, [North Korea] will not stick to any particular dialogue format
North Korean Foreign Ministry statement
"I think that people have got to know that we are serious about stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction and that each situation requires a different response," Mr Bush said.

'Road map'

The optimism comes after comments reported by the North's KCNA news agency on Saturday, when a foreign ministry spokesman said North Korea would "not stick to any particular dialogue format" if the US was prepared to make a "bold switchover" in its policy towards the country.

Previously North Korea - branded by the United States as part of an "axis of evil" along with Iraq and Iran - had insisted it would only hold direct talks with Washington to resolve the crisis.

South Korean security chief Ra Jong-yil said he thought the war in Iraq had played a part in Pyongyang's change of policy.

"North Korea's softening position seems to have mainly come because it wasn't in an advantageous position internationally," Mr Ra said.

Other officials said they believed increased diplomatic pressure from China and Russia had played a role.

South Korean officials have now said they are planning to step up efforts to urge North Korea to take part in multilateral talks as early as possible.

According to Seoul's Yonhap news agency, South Korean officials have given the US a "road map" to resolve the talks, calling for a freeze in Pyongyang's nuclear plans and details of a possible aid package.

In a further effort to resolve the issue, South Korean Foreign Minister Yoon Young-kwan held talks in Seoul on Monday with US ambassador Thomas Hubbard.

But even if multilateral talks do get underway soon, there is unlikely to be a speedy resolution, says the BBC correspondent in Seoul, Caroline Gluck.

Relations between North Korea and the US have been deteriorating since last October, when the US said that North Korea had admitted to having a secret enriched uranium programme.

Newspaper editorials in Seoul also cautioned against expecting a quick-fix solution to the crisis.

"It is hasty to expect talks with North Korea will bring a great advance in solving nuclear issues," said the daily Chosun Ilbo, citing the North's unpredictable track record.

The BBC's Caroline Gluck
"North Korea has denied pursuing a secret nuclear program"

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