SEOUL, South Korea -- The chief North Korean delegate to talks with South Korea hinted Tuesday he was unwilling to discuss an issue of vital concern to his hosts and their allies: North Korea's suspected nuclear weapons program.
The comments by Kim Ryong Song, the North Korean delegate, raised doubts about whether South Korea would make any headway during the four-day talks in urging the North to drop its nuclear programs.
"Let's not care about the situation surrounding us and concentrate on resolving internal issues," Kim said after arriving with his delegation.
He appeared to be referring to the talks' original agenda, which includes inter-Korean reconciliation plans such as the construction of cross-border railways and roads.
U.S. official arrives
Hours earlier, a top U.S. official arrived in Seoul from Beijing to discuss ways to pressure North Korea over its nuclear development. Undersecretary of State John Bolton, who handles arms control and international security, said his goal was to bring the matter before the U.N. Security Council.
North Korea has argued that the dispute about "the nuclear issue" is with the United States and does not involve South Korea or other nations. The communist country says it will resolve Washington's security concerns if the United States signs a nonaggression pact and does not block the North's economic development, a phrase likely meaning it wants energy and other aid for its moribund economy.
The chief South Korean delegate, Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun, hosted a dinner for Kim and his 29-member entourage, and the two men earlier exchanged diplomatic pleasantries masking tensions on their divided peninsula.
"As we march along together, several problems have popped up all of a sudden," Jeong said. "We must resolve them wisely, thus removing concerns among our people. Let's make the talks an internationally welcome event."
South Korean Prime Minister Kim Suk-soo was more direct, saying to the North Korean visitors, "The agreement to keep the Korean Peninsula nuclear-free must be observed without fail."
Tensions escalated in October when the United States said North Korea admitted having a secret nuclear program in violation of a 1994 agreement. The United States and its allies suspended oil shipments to the North and Pyongyang responded by expelling U.N. inspectors and preparing to reactivate facilities from an older nuclear program.
In Seoul, the North Korean delegation appealed to South Korea for solidarity in what apparently was the latest attempt to drive a wedge in the South's alliance with the United States, which keeps 37,000 soldiers on southern soil.
"However strong outside pressure is and however severe the outside situation is, we all should join forces and unite ourselves with a fervent sense of national respect and move forward through the difficulties lying ahead," the delegation's statement said.
South Korea is in an awkward position, trying to coax North Korea into abandoning its nuclear activities even though U.S. officials have shown a distaste for dialogue with the North. But the United States has softened its position recently, saying it is willing to talk and would consider economic aid for the North if it gives up its nuclear plans.
The Cabinet-level talks, along with three other sets of inter-Korean meetings this week, continue contacts started by a North-South summit in June 2000. They are the highest-level regular contacts between the two countries.
South Korean President-elect Roh Moo-hyun, who takes office next month, says he is willing to meet the North's delegation.
Bolton said getting the United Nations involved in the nuclear dispute is "certainly what we're aiming to do" but he did not specify what the United States would like the Security Council to do. U.S. officials earlier considered economic penalties against North Korea, but have dropped that option for now, at least publicly.
The U.S. envoy later met South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jun. Hwang Myung-soo, a ministry spokesman, said both sides "shared the view that a U.S.-South Korea alliance is important in resolving the North's nuclear issue."