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N. Korea Shifts Rhetoric

North Korea said Tuesday that it is willing to resolve the dispute over its nuclear program "through dialogue," in an apparent softening of its stance following last week's six-nation talks in Beijing.

After last week's landmark talks in the Chinese capital, North Korea angrily dismissed the need for more talks and threatened to strengthen its "nuclear deterrent force," casting doubt on the prospects for future meetings.

On Tuesday, the North's state-run news agency, KCNA, repeated North Korea's threat to increase its nuclear capabilities unless the United States changes its policy and signs a nonaggression treaty with the communist state, but also said North Korea is willing to continue the six-nation talks.

"The DPRK's fixed will to peacefully settle the nuclear issue between the DPRK and the U.S. through dialogue remains unchanged," KCNA said in an English-language commentary monitored in Seoul. DPRK stands for Democratic People's Republic of Korea, North Korea's official name.

North Korean state radio is known for issuing conflicting and sometimes bombastic propaganda, alternately vowing peace or threatening nuclear war.

Last week, representatives from the United States, the two Koreas, Japan, China and Russia met in Beijing to discuss ways to end the nuclear crisis. After the meeting, China, North Korea's only remaining major ally, released a statement saying all the six countries agreed to continue to talk. But North Korea later said it no longer had "interest or expectations" for such talks.

Despite the North's threat to boycott future meetings, other participants said that the six parties reached a tentative agreement to meet again around October.

On the second day of the talks, North Korea said it would prove to the world it possesses nuclear weapons by testing a nuclear device, according to a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

North Korea says the United States must sign a nonaggression treaty, open diplomatic ties and provide economic aid before it can feel safe enough to dismantle its nuclear program. The United States insists that North Korea first scrap its nuclear program before Washington can consider providing security guarantees and help for its moribund economy.

KCNA said last week's talks "were reduced to an armchair argument" because of the United States.

"The U.S. is demanding the DPRK accept its demands while it is not moving even a step. It is asking the DPRK to drop its gun first while it is still leveling its gun at the DPRK," it said.

The head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohammed ElBaradei, said any settlement issue should address concerns of both the United States and North Korea, but urged the communist state to return to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

"They cannot operate on the basis of nuclear blackmail — that would be the worst thing one can see," ElBaradei said after meeting German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer in Berlin.

China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan on Tuesday urged new talks to discuss the crisis between Washington and North Korea.

The current dispute erupted in October, when North Korea boasted of a project to process plutonium.

The U.S. subsequently cut off fuel shipments. The North responded by kicking out nuclear inspectors, renouncing the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, and vowing to reprocess fuel rods into weapons-grade plutonium and make nuclear bombs.

North Korea, which faces some 37,000 U.S. troops just across the border in South Korea, has said it feels threatened by Bush administration policies.

When President Bush took office, he suspended for a time talks with North Korea that the Clinton administration conducted, and a year later listed the North as part of the "axis of evil" America confronted.

Only a few months afterward, the administration articulated a doctrine of preemptive war. In a late 2002 review of U.S. nuclear strategy, the White House listed North Korea as one of several states where "contingencies" might develop involving nuclear weapons.

The White House has consistently said it does not intend to invade North Korea, but has resisted Pyongyang's demand for a nonaggression treaty.

Analysts suspect more practical considerations underlie the North Korean approach — that leader Kim Jong Il is forcing a confrontation so as to elicit more aid for his struggling economy.

For its part, North Korea has said it needs nuclear arms for at least one practical reason — to allow it to defend itself while whittling down its costly, million-man army.

The CIA believes North Korea already has enough nuclear material to make one or two weapons, and missiles that could deliver them as far as Alaska and the Hawaiian islands.

Earlier Tuesday, North Korea warned of rising tensions along the disputed western sea border with South Korea, accusing the Southern navy of infiltrating the North's territorial waters with warships.