SEOUL, South Korea — U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell arrived in South Korea today with a message for its reclusive, northern neighbor — Washington is ready for talks with Pyongyang any time, anywhere, with no preconditions.
Powell also sent a strong signal of encouragement to North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, who was on his way to Moscow by train for his first official foreign trip anywhere but China.
"I hope very much that Chairman Kim Jong-il will visit Seoul this year," Powell told a news conference after meeting South Korean Foreign Minister Han Seung-soo.
His comments were a reminder that the clock is ticking down on Nobel peace laureate President Kim Dae-jung's time in office, which last year brought the first intra-Korean summit since the two Koreas' 1950-1953 war.
Kim is constitutionally barred from running for a second five-year term when elections come up in December next year.
He won the Nobel prize partly for his "sunshine policy" of closer ties with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), whose authoritarian leadership relies on food handouts — largely from the United States — to feed its people.
U.S.-South Korean relations have been strained because of the Bush administration's decision to put on ice talks with the North — whose missile program and diplomatic unpredictability have drawn the world's attention and earned it the title of "rogue state" from the United States.
But now the United States says it is ready to engage again with North Korea in hopes of getting it to renounce its missiles and ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula, where the United States has 37,000 troops in the South.
"We can meet at a time and place of the DPRK's choice and we have no preconditions," Powell said.
Han, asked about North Korean Kim's visit to Russia, a return summit for President Vladimir Putin's visit to Pyongyang, said Seoul saw the visit as a sign he was willing to open up.
"We evaluate it very positively," he said.
Powell said it would be very useful if the Russians would encourage Kim to come to Seoul for a second summit.
"I think it would also be very useful if President Putin and the other Russian leaders would point out to Chairman Kim . . . that his economy is in a very terrible state and that he has a variety of problems (that) can only be dealt with as he reaches out and begins a dialogue," he added.
Powell encountered a group of small protesters who ran toward his convoy as it sped into Seoul from the airport, but they were restrained by police.
Twelve days ago about 1,000 demonstrators clashed with police at a U.S. bombing range, showing their opposition to U.S. plans for a missile defense system a day after the United States shot down a mock warhead as an early test.
The United States says it needs the system because of the threat from states such as North Korea, Iran and Iraq.
But South Korea is lukewarm about the system as it tries to improve ties with the North.
Powell said later he was not surprised Russia said it still stood by the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, but Washington would keep trying to persuade Moscow to change it.
Speaking at a news conference, Powell said he had not seen a statement from a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman that Moscow had not been persuaded to scrap or radically change the treaty, but the view came as no surprise.
"We are discussing with them the problems we have with that treaty with respect to a new strategic framework and missile defense so I'm not surprised by the statements," he added.
Bush's predecessor Bill Clinton was contemplating a visit to North Korea in the dying days of his administration to seal a deal that would mothball Pyongyang's long-range missile program leading to normalized ties between the two nations, still technically in a state of war.
Although the Bush administration has completed its review, it is still awaiting word on its response to an offer of broad talks with Pyongyang.
U.S. officials have noted however that developments take time to ferment in North Korea.