U.S. against seeking collapse of North Korean regime: truth or not?

South Korea's president lashed out Wednesday at hard-liners in Washington seeking to force the collapse of North Korea's totalitarian regime, as the Foreign Ministry criticized a U.S. account of a meeting on preventing criminal activity by the North. The verbal barrage from Seoul underscored the strains in its relationship with its longtime ally, the United States, amid a stalled effort to convince North Korea to abandon its nuclear programs. North Korea reiterated Wednesday that it won't return to the international arms talks until Washington lifts sanctions it recently imposed over the North's alleged financial crimes.

"I don't agree (with) some opinions inside the U.S. that appear to be wanting to take issue with North Korea's regime, apply pressure and sometimes wishing for its collapse," President Roh Moo-hyun said at his annual New Year's news conference. "If the U.S. government tries to resolve the problem that way, there will be friction and disagreement between South Korea and the U.S." He added, however, that there's no such friction yet because the opinions don't reflect current U.S. policy.

Still, the United States has taken a tougher line recently on North Korea, enacting new financial sanctions against the North for alleged activities to fund weapons development, including counterfeiting, money laundering and drug trafficking. A new U.S. envoy on North Korea's human rights also pressed Seoul last month to raise North Korea's reported abuses in its dealings with the North.

South Korea has toed a delicate line with its heavily armed northern neighbor, saying it remains united with Washington and pursuing a policy of engagement with the North while keeping a priority on maintaining stability. Roh on Wednesday avoided directly answering whether his government believes the North is engaged in criminal activity. He said the matter required review and consideration of how measures are "related to efforts to resolve the nuclear issue and if that involves any intention to pressure North Korea's regime."

A U.S. Treasury Department delegation was in Seoul this week to present Washington's evidence against the North, and the U.S. Embassy said Tuesday that it "urged" the South to strengthen financial controls to prevent proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. But in an unusually blunt public statement, the South Korean Foreign Ministry said Wednesday that the U.S. delegation talked only of general cooperation and "didn't urge our government to take specific actions, either officially or unofficially", claiming the U.S. statement "does not correctly reflect" what was discussed.

U.S. Embassy spokesman Robert Ogburn said "we still stand by our press release," declining to give details of what exact measures were discussed. Last year, the U.S. slapped sanctions on a bank in the Chinese territory of Macau, alleging it helped the North distribute counterfeit currency and engage in other illicit activities. The U.S. also sanctioned North Korean companies it claimed were fronts for weapons proliferation.

Washington has rebuffed North Korea's demands for a lifting of the sanctions before it returns to the six-nation nuclear talks, saying they are "defensive" measures unrelated to the weapons issue. U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser J.D. Crouch said Wednesday in Seoul that Washington is ready "to return to the six-party talks with renewed energy," according to Ogburn, who added that Crouch didn't elaborate.

Earlier Wednesday, the North repeated its demand. "If the U.S. truly wants the resumption of the six-party talks and their progress, it had better opt for lifting its financial sanctions against (North Korea) and coexisting with it," the North's official Korean Central News Agency said in a commentary.

The nuclear talks have failed to make any progress since September on implementing an agreement in which the North pledged to abandon its atomic programs in exchange for security guarantees and aid. The removal of nuclear weapons from the peninsula could pave the way for a formal peace agreement between the divided Koreas, which remain in a state of conflict after the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a cease-fire, not a peace treaty. Roh said Wednesday he would make "sincere preparations for talks with concerned countries on establishing a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula."

About 32,500 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea as a deterrent against threats from the North, and the commander of the American forces is authorized to take control of all troops, including South Korea's, in the event of a renewed war. South Korea has recently sought to maintain wartime control of its soldiers, and Roh also said Wednesday he would aim for an agreement on the issue this year, reports the AP. N.U.