Seoul, South Korea North Korea signaled Wednesday it remains open to suspending uranium enrichment in exchange for U.S. food aid, a deal that appeared imminent before leader Kim Jong Il died last month.
The North complained that the United States had "drastically" changed the amount and kind of aid it would send, but said officials would wait and "see if the United States has a willingness to establish confidence" with North Korea — which observers saw as Pyongyang's precondition for making the food-for-uranium-suspension deal happen.
The North's statement offers an early look at how the government now led by Kim Jong Il's son, Kim Jong Un, will handle two of North Korea's most pressing issues: a long-running food crisis and years of international pressure to end its nuclear program.
"The North is saying it is willing to go ahead with nuclear steps if it gets the food aid it wants," said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea professor at Seoul's Dongguk University. "The North is telling the United States to provide a goodwill gesture. If Washington doesn't, Pyongyang is threatening it will go down its own path."
Some have feared Pyongyang may attempt to rally support around the younger Kim's rule with a nuclear or missile test or an act of aggression against South Korea, but Wednesday's statement from an unidentified Foreign Ministry spokesman in Pyongyang suggests it may instead choose to pursue an agreement that could be trumpeted as a diplomatic victory.
The Associated Press reported before Kim Jong Il's Dec. 17 death that the United States was poised to announce a significant donation of food aid to North Korea. That would have been followed within days by an agreement to suspend North Korea's uranium enrichment program, according to a broad outline of the emerging agreement made known to The AP by people close to the negotiations.
Discussions were suspended after Kim Jong Il's death, as the North turned inward for an official mourning period. Now Pyongyang looks to solidify Kim Jong Un's power as he extends the Kim family dynasty into a third generation.
U.S. officials have called possible food aid to North Korea "nutritional assistance," such as vitamin supplements, and have said they want to ensure such aid goes to the needy and not the military. North Korea, for its part, has reportedly demanded rice and other grains.
North Korea, which has tested two atomic devices in the past five years, has pushed over the last year for a resumption of six-nation aid-for-disarmament talks involving the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Russia and Japan. But the U.S. and South Korea demand that Pyongyang first suspend uranium enrichment and fulfill other past nuclear commitments.
Uranium enrichment could give the North another way to make nuclear bombs, in addition to its plutonium program.
North Korea has been trying to cast Kim Jong Un, believed to be in his late 20s, as a strong, confident military leader. State TV in recent days has shown him in the cockpit of a tank, on horseback and poring over documents at night. On Wednesday, the official Korean Central News Agency said he inspected military-led construction projects, including a traditional park and a meat store.
But even as North Korea pursues its nuclear weapons ambitions, it struggles to feed its own people, analysts say. The country had little arable land to begin with and has suffered from decades of economic mismanagement. The problem is highlighted this year by the North's repeated vows to start building a strong, prosperous country as it celebrates the centennial of the birth of founder Kim Il Sung in April.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters earlier this week that contact on food aid between the United States and North Korea has continued in the new year. But she added, "Were we to go forward with this, we would want to go forward in a way that gave us maximum confidence that the nutritional assistance would go to those in need, and could not be diverted to any other uses."
The North's statement, released by KCNA, said Washington, in talks with Pyongyang that began in July last year, proposed providing food aid and discussing temporarily lifting sanctions if Pyongyang took confidence-building measures such as suspending its uranium enrichment activities.
In 2008, the United States promised to provide 500,000 tons of food aid. The U.S. subsequently gave North Korea about 170,000 tons of food aid, but the North in 2009 rejected remaining shipments after tension flared over a planned long-range rocket test.
Recent U.S.-North Korea talks were about shipping the remaining 330,000 tons of food aid, but Washington later sought to "drastically" change the amount and the items of food assistance it was supposed to provide, the North Korean statement said.
While North Korea expressed "doubt about the U.S.," it said it "will see if the U.S. has a willingness to build confidence."
The statement also said unspecified "hostile forces" are spreading "unsavory" rumors that North Korea "is holding its hands out for food" after Kim Jong Il's death.
The United States and North Korea fought on opposite sides of the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty, leaving the peninsula in a technical state of war. About 28,500 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea to deter potential North Korean aggression.
Associated Press writer Sam Kim contributed to this report. Follow AP's Korea coverage at twitter.com/APklug and twitter.com/samkim_ap.