Pyongyang Open to New Talks

SEOUL -- A day after apologizing for a submarine incursion into South Korea, Pyongyang said Monday it was ready to take the first steps towards peace talks and would resume dismantling its nuclear threat.

Yet in a day of mixed signals, it lashed out at "butchers" in Seoul as the ashes of 24 North Koreans shot after landing in the South from a submarine were handed back across the border.

Its praise of the infiltrators as "martyrs" and "heroes" contrasted with its words of contrition Sunday.

And while it trumpeted concessions it said were made by Washington in talks that secured the apology -- including food aid -- it minimized the submarine incident in September that infuriated South Korea.

The official Korean Central News Agency, or KCNA, said Pyongyang had agreed in talks with U.S. diplomats in New York to listen to a "joint explanation" on peace talks proposed by U.S. President Bill Clinton and South Korean President Kim Young-sam.

Seoul and Washington have been pressing North Korea to accept a briefing on their proposal for talks, also including China, aimed replace a truce that ended the 1950-53 Korean War.

Pyongyang had also agreed to resume the storage of spent nuclear fuel rods -- a key part of a 1994 agreement with the United States under which it pledged to freeze its nuclear weapons program, KCNA said.

Washington agreed to "take additional measures to ease the embargo on the DPRK [North Korea] and supply food," KCNA said.

The KCNA account of talks in New York concluded by saying that North Korea had taken back bodies of its soldiers killed in the "submarine incident," but repeated its assertion that the vessel had drifted South after developing engine trouble.

South Korea condemned the intrusion as a deliberate "military provocation."

A ceremony at the border truce village of Panmunjom, where the ashes of the 24 infiltrators were handed back was overshadowed by vitriolic attacks on South Korea.

After troops from the North Korean People's Army had laid the ashes in wooden coffins, voices booming from loudspeakers praised the intruders as "martyrs that fought like heroes."

In stark contrast to the tone of Sunday's apology -- an unprecedented statement of contrition by North Korea expressing "deep regret" -- the voices, in Korean, delivered blistering attacks on the Seoul government.

"This incident revealed that the South Korean regime consists of human butchers and colonial pawns," one said. "The soldiers were on a regular training mission and the South Koreans murdered them."

Of 26 North Koreans that landed from the vessel, 11 were found shot dead -- apparently in a mass suicide -- and 13 were killed by Southern forces during a massive manhunt. One was captured alive and one is still at large.