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Korean Officials Hold Rare Meeting

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

The leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Il, held a rare meeting today in Pyongyang with a senior South Korean official. He reportedly told the official that North Korea is prepared to return to the six-party talks on its nuclear weapons program as early as next month. There's been increasing international concern over whether North Korea is willing to return to the negotiations, which were suspended a year ago. NPR's Rob Gifford reports.

ROB GIFFORD reporting:

South Korean delegates are in Pyongyang to mark the fifth anniversary of the landmark summit between Kim Jong Il and then South Korean President Kim Dae-jung. The famously reclusive Kim Jong Il rarely meets officials from other countries, but according to reports from Pyongyang, he issued an invitation to South Korean Unification Minister Chung Dong-young while Chung was out jogging in Pyongyang this morning. Kim held talks with Chung and the two later had lunch together.

The euphoria of the summit five years ago has long faded. Though South Korean officials have continued to visit Pyongyang and hold occasional talks, the deterioration of relations between Pyongyang and Washington over North Korea's nuclear weapons programs has overshadowed the warming of ties between Seoul and Pyongyang. Several rounds of talks involving all six regional powers were held last year and the year before to work out how to deal with Pyongyang's nuclear programs. But the negotiation process has stalled and talks have not taken place since last June.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun met with President Bush in Washington last week and the two agreed the North should return quickly to the talks. Roh said on his return to Seoul, the North could expect flexibility in the six-party process and added the South would give details of an incentive package to the North once Pyongyang returned to the table. But it's been no secret that Washington has been frustrated with Seoul's more friendly approach of trying to engage North Korea economically and politically. Seoul's optimism was on display today as South Korean Prime Minister Lee Hae-chan told reporters that a good mood has been building between Seoul and Pyongyang even though, up until today, it's been a while since officials from the two sides last met.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, Beijing.

MONTAGNE: As word comes that North Korea may be willing to return to six-party talks, the United States is telling the International Atomic Energy Agency that it is prepared to consider other options if Pyongyang refuses to rejoin those talks. A US delegate to the IAEA says Washington prefers a diplomatic solution and that North Korea needs to return to the negotiating table without preconditions. That delegate did not specify what other options the US is considering. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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