North Korea told a Russian envoy it is willing to discuss a recently disclosed uranium enrichment program if long-stalled nuclear disarmament talks resume, state media reported Tuesday.
Concerns about the North's nuclear capability took on renewed urgency in November when a visiting American scientist was shown a uranium enrichment facility.
Uranium enrichment could give North Korea, already believed to have enough weaponized plutonium for at least six atomic bombs, a second way to make nuclear weapons. North Korea has carried out two nuclear tests, in 2006 and 2009, and is believed to be working toward mounting a bomb on a long-range missile.
Five nations _ China, the U.S., Japan, South Korea and Russia _ had been negotiating since 2003 to persuade North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons program in exchange for aid and other concessions. Pyongyang pulled out of the talks about two years ago after being censured for launching a long-range rocket.
However, North Korea and China have made recent calls to resurrect the negotiations.
Pyongyang officials told Russia's top nuclear envoy, Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Borodavkin, that North Korea "is not opposed" to discussion of its uranium-enrichment program as part of nuclear talks, an unidentified North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman said in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.
A Russian delegation headed by Borodavkin visited North Korea from Friday to Monday, the spokesman said.
His delegation called for an early resumption of the six-party talks and urged Pyongyang to impose a moratorium on nuclear and ballistic missile tests and to allow international monitors back into its main nuclear complex near Pyongyang, KCNA said.
North Korea responded by saying it was willing to return to the six-party talks without preconditions, and that other Russian requests could also be discussed and settled in the course of implementing past agreements, the report said.
One analyst said Tuesday's statement appears aimed at drawing international attention to the North Korean nuclear issue as a massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan and anti-government protests across the Middle East dominate global headlines.
North Korea also wants to restart the talks to obtain badly needed aid and avoid further confrontation with the outside world, said Prof. Kim Yong-hyun of Seoul's Dongguk University.
South Korea and the United States say North Korea must demonstrate a commitment to denuclearization before any negotiations can resume. Seoul also wants a show of regret for two deadly incidents South Korea blames on the North: the sinking of a warship a year ago and an artillery attack on a front-line island in November.
The two Koreas remain in a technical state of war because their three-year conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, in 1953. The U.S. has 28,500 troops in the South to guard against aggression _ a presence that Pyongyang cites as a main factor behind its need to build a nuclear program.
On Tuesday, Seoul came to a halt for 15 minutes as South Koreans pulled their cars by the side of the road and scrambled under desks and into subway stations as part of regular drills to prepare for a potential attack from the North.
"The threats from the North have intensified recently," said Yoo Geon-cheol, head of the Jongno Fire Station in central Seoul. "The purpose of the drill is for the public, authorities and military to assume an offensive posture and counteract."