Hours after President Clinton demanded the release of Bobby Hall, North Korea countered Thursday with a handwritten statement purportedly from the American pilot asking forgiveness for "a flagrant violation of international law."

It wasn't clear whether the statement was an indication that North Korea is ready to free Bobby Hall or an attempt to intensify pressure for a public U.S. apology.It was impossible to know whether Hall wrote and signed the statement as the North Koreans claim, or if he did, under what type of pressure.

The statement, dated Christmas Day, was released after inconclusive talks Wednesday between North Korean officials and U.S. dip-lomat Thomas Hubbard.

Hubbard met Thursday with the first vice minister of foreign affairs, Kang Sok Ju, according to North Korea's official Korea Central News Agency, monitored in Tokyo. No details were available of the meeting in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.

Hall was captured Dec. 17 after his helicopter went down in North Korean territory. His co-pilot died and his body was returned last week.

Korea News Service in Tokyo, a pro-North agency, Thursday released a photograph of the handwritten statement it said it had obtained from North Korea.

The seven-page statement is headlined "CONFESSION." Only the first and last pages are clearly visible. U.S. officials had no immediate comment on whether it appeared to be Hall's handwriting.

In the statement released by the North's official news agency, Hall said he was on a reconnaissance mission when his OH-58A-C helicopter "deviated from the route" and crossed into North Korea.

He did not admit to spying and gave no explanation for the deviation, but said, "I admit that this criminal action is inexcusable and unpardonable. However, at home my parents, wife and kids are anxiously waiting for my return to them.

"I only hope, and it is my desire, that the Korean People's Army will leniently forgive me for my illegal intrusion so that I may return to my home and be with my family again."

After Hall's statement was released, a Clinton administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, acknowledged that the helicopter could be viewed as having illegally entering North Korean airspace but reiterated that the action was accidental and not part of a spying mission. U.S. officials have expressed regret over the incident.

In Washington on Wednesday, Clinton denied Hall's helicopter was involved in espionage. "He was on a routine training mission. That's all," the president said.

Clinton and administration officials avoided threatening retaliation, even while insisting the helicopter strayed into North Korean territory because of navigational errors.

Lawmakers and Secretary of State Warren Christoper have said failure to release the pilot soon could jeopardize an agreement to provide $4 billion in aid to North Korea and improve relations. In exchange, the isolated communist state, suspected of building nuclear weapons, is supposed to stop work on its nuclear program.

Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, a senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Fox TV that the statement attributed to Hall Thursday is "a typical North Korean strategy and sort of a Cold War re-enactment again."

"The only basis for hope is the fact that the North Korean government is still coherent enough to want to have a relationship with the United States," Lugar said.

It wasn't clear why North Korea released the statement four days after it was said to have been written and just after Hubbard arrived for the highest-level direct talks yet in the crisis.

But there have been indications of a power struggle between the North's civilian leaders and military hard-liners reported to be upset over the nuclear agreement signed two months ago.

The North's official Korean Central News Agency supplied a text of what it called Hall's confession.

"I am Chief Warrant Officer 2 Bobby Wayne Hall, pilot of an OH-58A-C . . . which was shot down after illegally intruding deep into the territorial airspace of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea," the statement began.

It said fellow Chief Warrant Officer David Hilemon was thrown from the helicopter in the crash and killed. Hilemon's body was released Thursday and returned to the United States.

Hilemon's body was buried Wednesday in the spot he had requested - a knoll overlooking Mount Rainier in Washington state.

Rep. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., who arranged the release of Hilemon's body, had said the deal also called for Hall to be released "very soon."