South Korea's foreign minister accusing North Korea of illegal financial activities

South Korea's foreign minister took a tougher line Wednesday on North Korea, directly accusing the communist state of illegal financial activities. The delicate shift in the rhetoric of Ban Ki-moon on the North came as Seoul's top diplomat announced his bid to succeed Kofi Annan as secretary-general of the United Nations.

"The government has serious concern about North Korea's illegal activities and the North should take necessary measures to resolve international suspicions," Ban told a weekly news briefing. The minister was referring to the North's alleged counterfeiting of U.S. currency and money laundering. North Korea has denied the charges, and said it will not attend international nuclear talks unless the U.S. lifts sanctions imposed for the financial irregularities.

South Korea has repeatedly expressed concerns about the dispute affecting the six-party talks, but has not publicly said whether it agrees with the U.S. accusations. Ban's comments Tuesday are believed to be the first time the South Korean diplomat has directly mentioned the North's culpability in public. It was unclear what prompted him change his tone.

Ban urged Pyongyang to act on a statement it made last week promising cooperation in international efforts to combat money laundering. He also said his winning the U.N. secretary-general post would have "positive effects on efforts to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue." The nuclear talks, including China, Japan, the two Koreas, the U.S. and Russia, haven't been held since November.

Earlier Tuesday, the U.S. ambassador to South Korea urged the North to abandon its nuclear program, saying that would bring it benefits and boost global security.

"It's in the interests of all countries and peoples, but most especially it's in the interests of the North Koreans themselves that (North Korea) shed the albatross of its nuclear program and join the international community," U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow said.

"We're committed to the peaceful resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue through diplomatic methods, but we will not tolerate a nuclear-armed North Korea," Vershbow said, paraphrasing comments by U.S. President George W. Bush and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun at a South Korea summit last year.

Also Tuesday, South Korea's Unification Ministry said Seoul will seek to coax the North back to the negotiating table while deepening economic ties with its impoverished northern neighbor. "I will make consistent efforts to ensure ... the progress of inter-Korean ties can have a positive impact on the resolution of the North's nuclear issue," Unification Minister Lee Jong-seok told reporters at his first weekly briefing since his appointment last week.

A North Korean diplomat told AP Television News on Monday in Pyongyang that it was unlikely the nuclear talks would resume soon because of Washington's refusal to lift financial restrictions on businesses connected to the North, reports the AP.

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