N. Korea Assures US On Talks, but Summit With South Is Off

IN some of its first external communications since the death of President Kim Il Sung, North Korea's government struck a much more forthcoming tone with the United States than with South Korea.

The disparity may provide an indication of where the new regime's priorities lie.

Kim's death put two key diplomatic encounters on hold: a third round of talks between the North and the US aimed at resolving international concerns over North Korea's alleged nuclear weapons program, and an unprecedented meeting between the leaders of the two Korean states that was set to take place July 25.

The North assured the US that the nuclear talks would continue. Its top negotiator on the issue, Kang Sok Ju, told US Assistant Secretary of State Robert Galluci that the North would be in touch as soon as appropriate negotiations could be restarted, probably in New York.

The US responded yesterday with relief and even enthusiasm. The resumption of talks, said a senior US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, is ``a virtual certainty.... This is good news.''

The South Koreans got shorter shrift: A one-sentence message was received by the government in Seoul yesterday announcing the postponement of the summit, but without further elaboration.

Speaking with reporters here yesterday, South Korean Foreign Minister Han Sung Joo said he did not think the summit plan had been forced all the way back to square one. ``Maybe we will go back to square two,'' he offered. Mr. Han argued that ``the idea, the principle, the spirit of the agreement [remains] very much valid.''

Recovering the momentum

``Even though North Korea considers the summit meeting as having been postponed, and we keep the door open, we don't know when that can be held,'' Han said. ``The momentum has to be resurrected, and we hope that the leadership of North Korea will cooperate.''

Referring to concerns that the succession to power of Kim's son, Kim Jong Il, would force an abandonment of the steps toward openness that Kim Il Sung took in meetings with former President Jimmy Carter last month, Han argued that ``the best bet ... would be that we probably will not see any drastic change in the policy of the government, but of course, that's only a bet.''

Kim Jong Il's ascension to his father's post seemed more certain yesterday. The North Korean government called party officials and legislators to the capital of Pyongyang, and unconfirmed reports citing an anonymous South Korean official said the younger Kim might be formally anointed as the country's leader at those gatherings. There was no word from the North on whether any meetings actually took place.

The North also released TV footage of the mourning under way in the country - dramatic scenes of thousands of people weeping and kneeling before a 60-foot statue of Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang - a sign that the country was becoming more comfortable in sharing its grief with outsiders.

North Korean broadcasters resumed some regular programming and began referring to the younger Kim as ``great leader,'' a sobriquet that was once reserved for Kim Il Sung.

These indications of normalcy and of a calm transition were comforting to South Koreans, although the country's military remained on alert.

But the more accommodating language used in the North Korean communication with Washington and the terseness reserved for Seoul were unmistakably reminiscent of a policy stance that predated Kim Il Sung's encounter with Mr. Carter. In those meetings, the late North Korean leader seemed to place equal importance on discussions with the US and with the South Korean government, simultaneously agreeing to nuclear talks with Washington and a summit meeting with his counterpart in Seoul.

Bid for direct talks

For decades, Pyongyang has insisted that the South Korean government was a puppet regime controlled by the US. Although there have been previous discussions about an inter-Korean summit and several bouts of bilateral diplomacy, the North has always sought direct contact with US officials.

During the 17-month standoff over the country's nuclear program, the North has repeatedly insisted that the proper avenue for resolving the dispute lay between Pyongyang and Washington.

Although the younger Kim is a figure of considerable mystery, some experts say that he was opposed to his late father's recent agreements with Carter. If true, it might mean that the new regime would take up the policies that Kim Il Sung pursued before last month: a pretense to equal footing with the US and an arrogant and aggressive stance toward South Korea.

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