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S. Korea makes nuclear plea

Business leaders are eyeing Roh's stance with interest
Business leaders are eyeing Roh's stance with interest

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SEOUL, South Korea (CNN) -- South Korea's President-elect Roh Moo-hyun has urged the United States to open talks with North Korea in a bid to end the nuclear standoff on the peninsula.

The soon-to-be president told a gathering of 600 American and European business leaders in the capital on Friday he wants to convince Washington to speak directly to Pyongyang.

Amid a barrage of anti-U.S. rhetoric, North Korea has embarked on a series of steps that have fueled concern over its nuclear ambitions, including reactivating facilities frozen under a 1994 pact with Washington and pulling out of a global nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

Washington insists North Korea, which it has labeled part of an "axis of evil" along with Iran and Iraq, abandon its covert nuclear program as a condition for further talks.

North Korea denies it has such a program, saying it is only using its nuclear reactors to produce fuel.

On Friday, Roh said he was concerned about media speculation the United States may attack North Korea and said there was "no need to worry" too much about the nuclear issue.

Commentators have repeatedly said that the impoverished North Korea is using the nuclear deadlock as a ploy to get more aid and assistance, a voice echoed by Roh.

"I think North Korea is sincere about their willingness to open up and reform, because they have no other choice," Roh said.

"So if we persistently talk to the North, North Korea will eventually give up with (their) nuclear program and look for assurance of their security and also economic aid."

'Utmost effort'

The incoming South Korean leader, who will be inaugurated February 25, said that after he takes office, he will visit the United States "at the earliest date."

He also reaffirmed the value South Koreans place on their alliance with the United States, despite anti-American protests, and said the 37,000 U.S. troops stationed in their country helped stabilize the balance of power in northeast Asia.

Bush administration officials have said they are willing to talk with North Korea about giving up its alleged nuclear program but they have drawn the line at negotiating a deal to resume economic aid in return for halting the program.

"The international community is very united on the need to resolve this and de-nuclearize the peninsula of Korea. We're of a mind to resolve it peacefully and to that end, we'll exert utmost effort," U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said after briefing lawmakers in Washington.

'Slow process'

On a visit to Beijing Thursday, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly said eliminating nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula would be a "slow process."

"The Korean peninsula needs to be free of nuclear weapons," he said. "That's something that China, the U.S.A., South Korea, Japan, Russia, really the whole international community agrees on.

Kelly spoke to reporters before departing for Singapore, after two days of talks with Chinese officials.

In recent days Beijing, a long time ally of the North, has become a hub of diplomatic activity, as it is the stopping point for direct air service to Pyongyang, a two-hour flight east of the Chinese capital.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov arrives in Beijing Friday morning before departing for Pyongyang the next day and then heading to Washington.

China has also offered to host talks between the United States and North Korea as a gesture to bring a peaceful solution to the crisis.

Meanwhile, North and South Korea will hold four days of cabinet-level talks in Seoul beginning next Tuesday to discuss the North's nuclear program as well as reconciliation proposals between the two Koreas.

-- CNN Correspondent Lisa Rose Weaver contributed to this report

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