A delegation of North Korean officials arrived here Tuesday for talks with their Southern counterparts amid a flurry of diplomatic activity aimed at cooling the crisis over Pyongyang's nuclear intentions.
The North Koreans came south for four days of Cabinet-level meetings -- the highest-level contact between the archrivals since the row over Pyongyang's nuclear program broke out in October. The negotiations form one of three different sets of inter-Korean talks this week during which Seoul hopes to press the North to end its face-off with the U.S.
At the same time, a senior American diplomat also arrived here Tuesday for high-level talks, while a top Russian envoy left Pyongyang after meeting with North Korea's reclusive leader, Kim Jong Il.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov, the first foreign official known to have met with Kim since the fall, described their six-hour session on Monday as "very substantive," the Russian news agency Itar-Tass reported. Losyukov presented Kim with a three-point plan to defuse tensions that calls for a commitment by Pyongyang to keeping the Korean peninsula nuclear-free in exchange for humanitarian and economic aid.
The plan also proposes that there be written assurances from the U.S. not to attack North Korea, a country President Bush last year labeled part of an "axis of evil."
Speaking to reporters later while passing through Beijing, Losyukov described his talks with Kim during a three-day visit as "very useful and rather constructive."
"Generally speaking, I think that there is some optimism and the problems can be resolved providing the preparedness of the sides involved," he said, speaking in English.
So far, the Bush administration has refused to bow to Pyongyang's demands for direct talks. U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton traveled to Seoul from Beijing on Tuesday within hours of the North Korean official delegation's journey along the same route, but there has been no suggestion of a meeting between the two.
Instead, Bolton is expected to discuss the possibility of turning over the matter of North Korea's renegade nuclear weapons development program to the U.N. Security Council.
That could trigger economic sanctions against the already impoverished country, which has already warned that such a penalty would be tantamount to an act of war.
Before he left Beijing, Bolton said that the Chinese government -- long one of Pyongyang's closest allies -- had signaled that it would not be opposed to handing the matter over to the United Nations.
But the Foreign Ministry in Beijing insisted Tuesday that direct talks between Washington and Pyongyang would be the best way forward.
"We should push the relevant sides to resume dialogue directly," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue told a news conference in the Chinese capital. "We believe this is the most effective way."
Beijing has offered to play host to any meeting between the United States and North Korea.
The government of South Korean President Kim Dae Jung has also tried to position itself as a go-between in the conflict. The leadership in Seoul has said it will try to bring up the standoff in the three sets of North-South talks this week, even though Pyongyang has been adamant that its dispute is with Washington alone.