SEOUL, South Korea — North Korean leader Kim Jong Il expressed regret about his country’s nuclear test to a Chinese delegation and said Pyongyang would return to international nuclear talks if Washington backs off a campaign to financially isolate the country, South Korean media reported Friday. But NBC News reported Friday that State Department officials dismissed reports that Kim made any such apology.
“If the U.S. makes a concession to some degree, we will also make a concession to some degree, whether it be bilateral talks or six-party talks,” Kim was quoted as telling a Chinese envoy, the mass-circulation Chosun Ilbo reported, citing a diplomatic source in China.
Kim told the Chinese delegation that “he is sorry about the nuclear test,” the newspaper reported. Kim also said that “we have no plans for additional nuclear tests,” the Yonhap news agency reported, citing an unnamed diplomatic source in Beijing.
But according to NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell, U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, discounted that report. The State Department also dismissed any assurances of nuclear testing being over, saying there may have been a breakthrough as a result of Kim’s talks with the Chinese envoy, but no word on a guarantee of no future tests.
North Korea kept up its bellicose rhetoric as more than 100,000 people gathered Friday in Pyongyang’s central Kim Il Sung square to “hail the success of the historic nuclear test,” according to the North’s official Korean Central News Agency.
At the rally, the first-known celebration directly tied to the explosion, a North Korean official defended last week’s nuclear test and said Pyongyang would “crush U.S. imperialists’ schemes with its self-defensive power.”
“No matter how the U.S. imperialists try to stifle and isolate our republic ... victory will be on the side of justice,” said Choe Thae Bok, secretary of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, according to KCNA.
China: Visit not in vain
Meantime, the Chinese delegation led by State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan met Kim on Thursday and returned to Beijing later that day — ahead of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s arrival in the capital Friday. China is viewed as a key nation in efforts to persuade the North to disarm, as it is the isolated communist nation’s main trading partner.
Meeting with Rice in Beijing on Friday, Tang said that his trip had “not been in vain.”
Rice said on Friday that the United States would be willing to return to six-party talks, but that financial restrictions on Pyongyang would remain.
“The Chinese are emphasizing the need for six-party talks to begin again and for the North to re-engage in the talks,” Rice told reporters in Beijing. “They (North Korea) urged us to be open to returning to those talks without preconditions, which for us is not difficult,” she said after talks with Tang.
Earlier, NBC reported that Rice did not hear of any concrete assurances or any kind of apology from North Korean during the talks with Tang, or even specifics on how North Korea might be drawn back into the six-party talks. The talks were described not as a breakthrough but as possibly the start of a long diplomatic track.
The North has refused since last November to return to the nuclear talks, which also include China, Japan, Russia and South Korea. Pyongyang has sought bolster its negotiating position by a series of provocative actions, test-firing a barrage of missiles in July and performing its first-ever nuclear test Oct. 9.
North Korea has long insisted that the United States desist from a campaign to sever its ties to the international financial system. Washington accuses Pyongyang of complicity in counterfeiting and money laundering to sell weapons of mass destruction.
Beijing stops financial transfers
China is believed to be North Korea’s main link to the world financial system. China’s importance increased after Washington imposed sanctions on a Macau bank that served North Korean companies, making other financial institutions uneasy about dealing with Pyongyang.
But China itself has also imposed financial restrictions. Chinese banks this week stopped financial transfers to North Korea under government orders as part of sanctions imposed for Pyongyang’s nuclear test, bank employees said Friday, in a possibly serious blow to the country’s frail economy.
The policy is a break with China’s earlier reluctance to use economic pressure against the North for fear its ally’s government might collapse.
All four major Chinese state-owned banks and British-owned HSBC Corp. have stopped financial transfers to the North, according to bank employees in Beijing and the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang.
NBC News, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.