-- North Korea told U.S. officials in a meeting in New York Monday that the reclusive nation is committed to returning to stalled negotiations on its nuclear ambitions but declined to set a date for new talks, U.S. and Asian officials said.
The meeting, three weeks after the Bush administration used the same venue to urge North Korea to renew the talks, was set at North Korea's request, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters accompanying Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to a meeting of the Organization of American States here. McCormack said he could not provide details on North Korea's message.
But a U.S. official familiar with the one-hour meeting and two Asian officials briefed by the Americans said the North Korean message was neither negative nor positive. One Asian official said the session may have been timed to lessen any sense of crisis before President Bush meets later this week with South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun.
"This is their effort to show they are still in the game," said the U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the diplomatic sensitivity. He said it was disappointing North Korea would not set a firm date for restarting the talks.
A senior Asian diplomat agreed, saying "nothing spectacular" occurred. "It is a gesture" by North Korea, "a very neutral thing," he said.
Meeting Monday at the North Korean mission of the United Nations were Joseph DeTrani, U.S. special envoy for talks on North Korea's nuclear programs, and James Foster, director of the State Department's Office of Korean Affairs, McCormack said. North Korea was represented by U.N. Ambassador Pak Gil Yon and Deputy U.N. Ambassador Han Song Ryol.
At a May 13 meeting attended by the same diplomats, DeTrani reiterated Rice's recent statements acknowledging North Korea's status as a "sovereign nation" as a way of encouraging North Korea to return to the talks. In February, the government in Pyongyang declared it had nuclear weapons and would refuse to attend the talks, citing the Bush administration's "hostile policy."
That statement was made shortly after Rice, in her confirmation hearings, declared North Korea was one of six "outposts of tyranny" -- and Bush a few days later in his State of the Union address pledged to combat tyranny around the world.
Since then, North Korea has sent conflicting signals through various statements issued by its state media. It has mocked the administration's recognition of its sovereignty as a sham and denounced Vice President Cheney as "bloodthirsty." But it also praised Bush for using the honorific "Mr." when referring to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, a point reiterated by the North Koreans in Monday's meeting.
U.S. intelligence analysts also said they detected vague but alarming signs that North Korea may be preparing to conduct a nuclear test.
The talks have been held three times between August 2003 and June 2004, with little progress, but no sessions have been held since then. The six governments participating in those negotiations are China, Japan, South Korea and Russia, in addition to North Korea and the United States.
China has hosted the talks, and U.S. officials have repeatedly asked Beijing to put more pressure on North Korea to return to the bargaining table. But China, North Korea's major trading partner, has appeared reluctant to apply overt pressure. It refused a U.S. request to briefly halt a pipeline providing fuel to North Korea.
Some U.S. officials had suggested the administration was losing patience and would intensify pressure itself by elevating scrutiny of North Korea's allegedly illicit activities or by referring the matter to the U.N. Security Council. China and South Korea have resisted these tactics, arguing for more U.S. flexibility.
Rice and other U.S. officials have made it clear that North Korea must not only return to the negotiating table but also be prepared to bargain hard. North Korea has never officially responded to a U.S. proposal made at the talks last June.
Under the proposal, if North Korea agrees to end its programs, South Korea and other U.S. allies could provide immediate energy assistance to North Korea. Pyongyang would have three months to disclose its programs and have its claims verified. The United States and allies would give written security assurances and enter a process that might result in direct U.S. aid.