North Korean leader Kim Jong Il said Friday he will return to six-party talks focused on his country's nuclear program next month "if it is certain that the United States is respecting the North as a partner," according to South Korean Unification Minister Chung Dong Young.
After a five-hour meeting with the reclusive leader on Friday, Chung said Kim indicated a willingness to negotiate the elimination of North Korea's nuclear weapons program. "We were going to stand up against the United States for self-protective reasons since they look down upon us, but we have not given up nor rejected the six-party talks," Chung quoted Kim as saying.
Chung said Kim added that "the denuclearization of the peninsula remains valid and is also a testament left by my father Kim Il Sung," referring to the 1992 agreement between the two Koreas signed by the founder of the communist state, who died in 1994.
Chung left Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, after leading a government delegation to mark the anniversary of a landmark summit between Kim and then-South Korean President Kim Dae Jung in June 2000.
According to Chung, Kim said that once the nuclear talks are resolved, his country will rejoin the Nonproliferation Treaty and accept inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. "There is no reason to keep nuclear weapons, not even one," Chung recalled Kim as saying. "I will open it all. They can come and see."
IAEA inspectors were expelled from North Korea on Dec. 31, 2002, just days after Pyongyang announced that it would withdraw from the global treaty against the spread of nuclear arms.
During the private conversation, Chung said, he relayed South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun's personal message, which included an "important proposal." Many Korea watchers think the message had been discussed by Roh and President Bush in Washington last week in an effort to break the impasse in negotiations with the North.
Chung said that when he asked Kim what he thought of Roh's emphasis on Bush's upgraded treatment of the North Korean leader by referring to him as "Mr. Kim," Kim replied, "Should I designate him as Mr. President, then? I have no reason to think bad of President Bush."
Kim said he had heard from Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi that Bush is "an interesting man, a good man, who could have a good conversation," according to Chung. He also said that Kim has thought highly of the United States since President Bill Clinton was in office, stressing the importance of respecting the negotiating partner, Chung said.
The North Korean leader also accepted various South Korean proposals to resume inter-Korean exchanges, Chung said. He added that Kim was especially interested in the idea of launching family reunions of separated North and South Koreans via picture screen, replying that, "It is a very interesting and exciting idea that is possible in this information age."
An estimated 120,000 South Koreans, mostly in their seventies and eighties, have applied to search for relatives in the North from whom they were separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.
The meeting came a day after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called on the North to set a date to rejoin the talks and to commit to discuss dismantling its nuclear program at the six-party talks involving North and South Korea, the United States, China, Russia and Japan. The Pyongyang government has boycotted the talks for nearly a year, charging that the Bush administration has a hostile policy toward the communist state.