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North Korea Calls For Direct Talks With U.S.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il
SEOUL (Reuters) -- North Korea has called for direct talks with its longtime foe, the United States, and gave the clearest signal so far it was ready to return to nuclear disarmament talks it has boycotted for almost a year.

The comments follow last week's rare visit by a North Korean official to the United States and what has been a "charm" offensive by the ostracized state which some analysts say is looking increasingly desperate for finance and aid.

"The conclusion we have reached is that the direct parties, which are the North and the United States, must first sit down and find a rational solution," a Foreign Ministry spokesman was quoted as saying by the official KCNA news agency.

"Now that we have shown the generosity of stating the position that we would be willing to talk to the United States and hold multilateral talks including the six-way talks, it is time for the United States to make a decision."

The comments were the strongest so far on the secretive state's willingness to return to talks it walked out on last December.

Last month, leader Kim Jong Il said he would consider rejoining the talks with China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States, provided it had direct discussions with Washington.

U.S. academics and former officials said on October 30 after meeting Pyongyang's second-ranking nuclear envoy that the North appeared to be more open to resuming the six-way talks on its nuclear program.

North Korea's Ri Gun met the U.S. special envoy to disarmament talks in the past week in rare contacts in the United States, viewed as prelude to a visit to Pyongyang by senior U.S. officials.

Pyongyang has demanded direct talks with Washington as the best way to resolve hostility it argues has given it no option but to build an atomic arsenal.

However, the United States has said there would be no negotiations outside the six-way forum.

A well-placed diplomatic source in Seoul said it was not clear whether there has been a fundamental shift in the North's position to abandon its nuclear program if the price is right.

"North Korea's financial plight likely has led to its charm offensive but we don't know if that means it is ready to make major concessions on its nuclear arms plans," he said.

Destitute North Korea has been reaching out to its traditional foes after being hit by UN sanctions to punish it for its second nuclear test in May.

The sanctions were aimed at cutting into its vital revenue source of overseas arms sales.