IMAGE: SOUTH KOREAN, JAPANESE OFFICIALS LEE, YABUNAKA
Ahn Young-joon  /  AP
South Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Lee Soo-hyuck, right, and Japanese Foreign Ministry Director General Mitoji Yabunaka head to a meeting Monday with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly on North Korea's nuclear program.
updated 2/23/2004 10:56:06 AM ET 2004-02-23T15:56:06

The United States is considering a proposal by Seoul to encourage North Korea to freeze its nuclear weapons program, a top South Korean nuclear negotiator said Monday. Meantime, a Japanese diplomat said the North had expressed a “readiness” to abolish the program.

The developments came as diplomats from the United States, South Korea and Japan gathered in Seoul ahead of six-nation talks in Beijing on the issue. South Korea is pushing a three-stage plan to resolve the 16-month-old nuclear standoff.

Lee Soo-hyuck, a top South Korean negotiator, said the United States was considering Seoul’s proposal. He gave no details but said it entailed delivering “countermeasures” to the north in exchange for stopping and eventually dismantling its nuclear programs.

“The United States shares a significant understanding of the conditions we attached to the proposed North Korean nuclear freeze,” Lee said after a morning meeting with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly and their counterpart Japanese Foreign Ministry Director General Mitoji Yabunaka

U.S. said to have no ‘strong objection’
“We understand that the United States does not have a strong objection to taking the countermeasures proposed by South Korea as long as the nuclear freeze comes with such conditions.”

Maureen Cormack, spokeswoman of the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, said she would have to check on Lee’s statement before commenting on the U.S. position.

Meanwhile, Japanese Vice Foreign Minister Ichiro Aisawa quoted his Chinese counterpart, Vice Foreign Minister Wang Yi, as saying North Korea had expressed a willingness to abolish its nuclear program. Aisawa spoke after meeting in Beijing with Wang, China’s chief negotiator.

“During my meeting with Vice Minister Wang, he said North Korea had expressed to China its readiness to completely abandon its nuclear development, and said that the freeze was premised on that,” Aisawa said in comments to reporters broadcast in Tokyo by the NHK network.

Japan’s top government spokesman cautioned that the meaning of the remarks was unclear.

Caution urged on reported concession
“It’s not necessarily clear what was meant by ’completely abandon’ or what North Korea’s premises are,” said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda.

In December, North Korea proposed freezing its nuclear activities in return for economic aid and other concessions from the United States. Washington demanded that North Korea start dismantling its nuclear programs first.

The South Korean plan starts with North Korea declaring its willingness to give up its nuclear programs and Washington and its allies expressing readiness to provide a security guarantee.

The second stage will start with North Korea freezing its nuclear programs and then dismantling them in a verifiable way; the other countries would offer corresponding measures.

“The third stage is more of a comprehensive proposal in which resolution of other issues following the dismantlement are discussed,” Lee said.

Japan’s Kyodo news agency, citing Japanese government officials, said South Korea had proposed extending energy aid in return for a freeze linked to eventual dismantlement.

The nuclear crisis flared in late 2002 when U.S. officials said North Korea acknowledged privately to U.S. representatives that it had the program in violation of a 1994 agreement. It also has a plutonium-based one.

North Korea later denied having a uranium program, and on Saturday called the accusations a “whopping lie.”

The United States, South Korea and Japan insist that any solution to the nuclear dispute address the uranium program.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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