North Korea, Iran open to U.S. efforts to defuse tension

Thursday, January 22, 2009
**FILE**In this undated Korean Central News Agency photo released by Korea News Service in Tokyo Sunday, Jan. 18, 2009, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, wearing glasses, smiles as he visits a unit of the Korean People's Army at unknown location in North Korea. (AP Photo/Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service) ** JAPAN OUT **

SEOUL, South Korea -- North Korea and Iran, two nations with nuclear aspirations the U.S. wants to thwart, both signaled Wednesday that they were open to new initiatives from President Barack Obama that could defuse tensions.

A newspaper considered a mouthpiece for the North Korean government said the communist regime is willing to give up its nuclear weapons if the U.S. agrees to conditions imposed by the North, including establishing formal diplomatic relations.

Iran said it was "ready for new approaches" from Obama after his predecessor George W. Bush shunned the country.

"With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat," Obama said in his inauguration speech Tuesday.

"To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist," the new American president said.

The Japanese-based newspaper Choson Sinbo said in a story posted on its Web site hours before the inauguration that the North was waiting to see what position the new president would take on the nuclear standoff. The North holds a stash of weapons-grade plutonium that experts say could fuel as many as 10 nuclear bombs and it has already tested a nuclear device.

Last week, the North said it would give up its nuclear weapons only if Washington establishes diplomatic relations and ceases to pose a nuclear threat -- an apparent reference to the regime's long-standing claim that American nuclear weapons are hidden in South Korea. Both South Korea and Washington deny the accusation.

The Choson Sinbo report said the North put forward conditions for its nuclear abandonment "ahead of the launch of the Obama administration," and it was now up to Washington to act.

"It is too early to predict whether the Obama administration will endorse the North's nuclear possession or try to realize denuclearization through normalization of relations," the newspaper report said. "But what is sure is that the North side is ready to deal with any choice by the enemy nation."

The newspaper is closely linked to the North Korean government and its articles are considered a reflection of the North's positions.

Obama has said he would meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Il if it helps the international process to disarm the North.

The North's main Rodong Sinmun newspaper called the U.S. "bloodthirsty" Wednesday in a routine commentary that accused Washington of planning to invade. The official Korean Central News Agency also briefly reported Obama's inauguration without any assessment of the new leader.

Iran's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, urged Obama to change American policies in the Middle East.

"We are ready for new approaches by the United States," Mottaki told the English-language Press TV, part of Iran's state media.

For now, though, Iran would wait to see what "practical policies" Obama will adopt before making any judgment about his stance toward Iran, Mottaki said, according to the official IRNA news agency.

In his campaign, Obama spoke of a need to engage Iran, which would be a significant departure from the Bush government's approach.

Mottaki said Obama needed to take action to correct a bad image of America in the world and to employ new advisers who would tell the "truth" about the Middle East.

"A new Middle East is in the making," IRNA quoted Mottaki as saying. "The new generation in this region seeks justice and rejects domination. A change in Mideast policy is one of the areas ... if the new U.S. government claims to follow a policy of change."

In recent years, the two foes have been deeply at odds over Iran's nuclear program. The U.S. says Iran's uranium enrichment program is aimed at producing nuclear weapons, but Iran' denies that.

Representatives from Britain, France, Russia, Germany, China and the United States will meet in Berlin next month to discuss Iran's disputed nuclear program, Russia's ambassador to Britain Yuri Fedotov told journalists in London Wednesday. It would be the first meeting of the six world powers attempting to defuse the nuclear standoff with Iran since Obama became president.

Associated Press reporter Ali Akbar Dareini contributed to this report from Tehran.

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