NKorea: Ready to deal with Obama administration

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SEOUL, South Korea – Barack Obama's election heralds a new era for the two Koreas, a pro-North Korean newspaper said Friday as analysts began gauging how the Obama administration will affect the divided peninsula.

A North Korean diplomat said Pyongyang is prepared for dialogue — or confrontation — with the incoming U.S. president. South Korea's leader said he and Obama pledged during a phone call to work together to resolve the nuclear standoff.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, meanwhile, said in Seoul that he was confident Obama will press for North Korea to stick to its promise to disarm the peninsula of nuclear weapons.

North Korean diplomat Ri Gun said Pyongyang is prepared for whatever policy changes the Obama administration makes.

"We will have dialogue if (the U.S.) seeks dialogue. If it seeks isolation, we will stand against it," he said in New York in comments shown in Seoul on YTN television.

President Bush took a hard-line stance on North Korea when he took office in 2001, characterizing the country as a member of an "axis of evil" along with Iran and Iraq. Bush's stance since has softened, and Obama has sought to emphasize his willingness to hold direct talks with the North — including possibly meeting with leader Kim Jong Il.

Analyst Hong Hyun-ik of the Sejong Institute called it an "openhearted policy" that has faith Pyongyang could be persuaded to give up its nuclear ambitions if its concerns are addressed. Under Obama, "relations between the United States and North Korea could improve at a much faster pace than we expected," he said.

North Korean television mentioned Obama's win — a rare, brief report on U.S. news.

"He defeated Sen. (John) McCain, the Republican candidate, by a big margin in the election," the broadcaster said Friday, according to South Korea's Yonhap News Agency.

U.S.-North Korea relations had been frosty in recent months amid a standoff over Pyongyang's nuclear program. But the stalled process to disarm North Korea got back into gear last month after the U.S. removed the country from its list of nations that sponsor terrorism.

State Department spokesman Robert Wood said in Washington on Friday that U.S. envoy Christopher Hill and Ri met Thursday and discussed a way to verify North Korea's nuclear declaration, energy assistance and the disabling of the North's nuclear facilities. Wood said Hill had no plans to travel to Asia and that no date for six-nation nuclear talks would be announced yet.

There has been speculation that Kim Jong Il suffered a stroke in August — reports the North denies. Ri bristled when asked about the 66-year-old leader's health, calling it "all nonsense."

Previous South Korean governments embraced a conciliatory "sunshine" policy, offering aid as an icebreaker. But President Lee Myung-bak pledged a tougher line on the North, prompting Pyongyang to break off relations with Seoul.

North Korea's Foreign Ministry has not officially commented on Obama's victory. However, the Japan-based newspaper Choson Sinbo, seen as representative of Pyongyang policy, hinted of a willingness to engage directly with the new U.S. leader.

"If the soon-to-be-inaugurated Obama administration takes a more aggressive stance toward dialogue" with the North, "the situation whereby (North Korea) communicates with the U.S. and sidelines South Korea will be intensified," the newspaper said, calling Obama's election the start of "a new phase" for the Korean peninsula.

Powell, a former national security adviser and ex-chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Obama would work closely with Lee's government in urging Pyongyang to keep its promises to disarm.

"I'm confident that the new president ... will be committed to that proposition, but he will be committed in a way that makes sure that he's constantly in touch with the authorities here in Seoul" and other members of the six-party nuclear talks, Powell said during a speech Friday.

He described Obama as a "transformational figure" with exceptional judgment, and said he shed tears of joy over Obama's victory.

"It hit me like a bolt of electricity going through my body" the moment Obama was declared the victor, Powell said.


Associated Press writer Jae-soon Chang contributed to this report.