SEOUL, South Korea (AP) - A South Korean delegation on a mission to North Korea to defuse nuclear tensions was not allowed to meet the North's leader Kim Jong Il as it had expected and was returning home Wednesday, South Korean officials said.
The development wrecked hopes that the delegation - led by Lim Dong-won, a presidential envoy who has met Kim several times in the past - would be able to try to personally dissuade the North Korean leader from pursuing nuclear weapons development.
Many in the South view Kim as the only figure in the reclusive country who can make any meaningful decision on the nuclear issue.
There was no immediate comment from the North, which had not previously confirmed that the delegation would meet Kim.
Kim Jong-ro, a spokesman for Seoul's Unification Ministry, said the delegation, which arrived Monday, would leave the North's capital, Pyongyang, for Seoul on Wednesday morning.
But South Korean officials said the mission achieved "some degree of success'' after conveying its anti-nuclear position clearly to North Korea while hearing the North's response.
The delegation met with other top North Korean officials, including Kim Yong Nam, the country's ceremonial head of state and No. 2, and Kim Yong Sun, a key aide to Kim Jong Il.
"Envoy Lim urged high-ranking North Korean officials not to lose the current opportunity to take visible actions to resolve its nuclear issue but the Northern side repeated its position,'' a South Korean Unification Ministry official told local reporters in Seoul on condition of anonymity.
Lim took on the trip a personal letter from his president to the North Korean leader. He passed the letter to the North Korean leader through aides, said the official.
The dispute was sparked in October when U.S. officials said North Korea had admitted having a nuclear program based on uranium enrichment in violation of a 1994 agreement with the United States.
Washington and its allies suspended oil shipments to North Korea, which then expelled U.N. nuclear inspectors and pulled out of a global nuclear arms control treaty.
The envoy's visit _ coming after a round of North-South Cabinet-level talks last week in Seoul_ was part of South Korea's efforts to seek a negotiated end to the North's suspected nuclear weapons development.
While courting the Southern delegation, North Korea kept up its anti-U.S. attack, accusing Secretary of State Colin Powell of lying and Washington of plotting a pre-emptive nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula.
Powell's statement that the United States has no intention of attacking North Korea is "lies to evade responsibilities'' by Washington for the nuclear dispute, a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman said in a Korean-language report carried by the country's KCNA news agency.
The report was monitored by South Korea's Yonhap news agency late Tuesday night.
The spokesman, who was not identified in the report, referred to Powell's speech on Sunday at an international meeting in Davos, Switzerland, outlining Washington's willingness to talk with the North but only after the communist country gives up its nuclear ambitions.
"We are convinced that the Bush administration is a gang of hooligans that broke without hesitation an international agreement as well as bilateral agreements concluded by its preceding governments,'' the spokesman said in the report.
The KCNA said in a separate report Tuesday that North Korea was prepared to retaliate with "the unlimited use of means,'' if the United States unleashed war.
North Korea is demanding a nonaggression treaty with the United States before it gives up its nuclear ambitions.
Washington has ruled out a formal treaty but said it can provide a written security guarantee.
Washington wants to bring the North's nuclear issue before the U.N. Security Council, which could eventually impose sanctions on Pyongyang.
North Korea warns that sanctions would be tantamount to an act of war. - AP