SEOUL -- A special envoy dispatched by the South Korean government opened talks Monday with officials in North Korea to try to nudge the crisis over the North's nuclear intentions closer to resolution.
Lim Dong Won, an advisor to South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, met in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, with an aide to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Government reports in Seoul did not elaborate on the conversations, except to say that they were conducted "in a sincere atmosphere."
Earlier Monday, before he boarded a plane for a rare flight directly from Seoul to Pyongyang over the most heavily armed border in the world, Lim said he was on a mission of peace and reconciliation.
"Whatever I do, I hope to open a pipeline and create the first steps toward the resolution of the nuclear issue in a way that avoids war," Lim told reporters. But he cautioned that "the nuclear problem will take a long time to solve."
Lim's meetings Monday were a prelude to a possible session today with the North Korean leader himself. Lim, a former minister for unification, has met the reclusive Kim once before and was carrying a letter to him from the South Korean president.
Accompanying Lim was an envoy of South Korea's incoming president, Roh Moo Hyun, a firm supporter of increased engagement with the North.
Pyongyang's reported revelation last fall of its efforts to develop nuclear weapons, along with its pullout from a global treaty to halt the spread of such arms and Washington's tough response, led to a standoff with no immediate resolution in sight.
North Korea welcomed the South's diplomatic overture, urging "national cooperation" between the two Koreas. However, it remains to be seen how much influence the talks will have, or whether they are merely part of a strategy by Pyongyang to drive a wedge into the increasingly strained relationship between Seoul and Washington.
Comments by Pyongyang's official media continued to blast all other outside intervention in the standoff, which North Korea wants to portray as an argument between it and the United States.
The state-run KCNA news agency castigated the International Atomic Energy Agency, the nuclear watchdog of the United Nations, for considering whether to get involved. Washington has urged the IAEA to refer the crisis to the U.N. Security Council, a move North Korea wants badly to avoid.
KCNA called the international agency a "cat's paw" of the U.S. and warned the agency's head, Mohamed ElBaradei, that any action against North Korea would "only put an indelible stain on his reputation and image."
The IAEA had tentatively scheduled an emergency session of its board of governors early next week to discuss the North Korean crisis, but the agency agreed over the weekend to put off setting a firm date to give deliberations in Pyongyang some breathing room.
Besides the meetings in Pyongyang, other inter-Korean talks produced positive results Monday, with an agreement that will allow the two sides to press ahead with plans for railway and road connections across their heavily fortified border.
The plans had stalled on the question of who has oversight of two new de-mined corridors through which the roads and railways would cross the demilitarized zone. The two sides agreed to control their respective ends of the corridor, in accord with the truce that brought the 1950-53 Korean War to a halt.