U.S. officials were skeptical yesterday that North Korea's statement Monday that it was committed to returning to multinational disarmament talks signaled a breakthrough in the year-long effort to arrange another meeting. But Asian officials were optimistic, with China's U.N. ambassador even predicting that talks would resume within the next few weeks.
"I think it will be pretty soon, in the next few weeks," Ambassador Wang Guangya told reporters. "I understand that it will be Beijing."
China has been the host of three previous meetings, each time luring North Korea to the table with tens of millions of dollars in incentives. But little progress has been made at the meetings, which are supposed to lead to the dismantling of North Korea's nuclear programs. South Korea, Japan and Russia also participate in the talks.
U.S. and Asian officials said Monday that North Korean officials at the United Nations had told a U.S. delegation that it was committed to the talks but would not set a date. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack confirmed that account yesterday.
"The ball is in the North Koreans' court to provide a time when they will return to the table and to actually return to the table to engage in a constructive manner," McCormack told reporters.
One U.S. official familiar with Monday's discussions said the body language by the North Koreans was "very good," giving some grounds for optimism. But he said the North Koreans left their return open-ended, saying that "when the conditions are ripe they will come back to the talks."
North Korea has repeatedly denounced what it calls the Bush administration's "hostile policy," including some of the rhetoric used by U.S. officials to describe the reclusive nation. But the North Korean officials did not appear to set any specific conditions for Pyongyang's return to the talks.
Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, speaking to reporters after testifying on Capitol Hill, noted: "They did not give us a date. Until we get a date and get everyone sitting at the table, we do not have a process."
U.S. officials say they expect North Korea to provide a detailed response to a U.S. proposal advanced at the last session, in June 2004. North Korea has never officially responded to that idea -- which would have held off any direct U.S. participation until North Korea fully disclosed its programs and its assertions were verified.
U.S. officials said they do not plan to update that proposal before any new round of talks but are prepared to be flexible and creative if North Korea makes a legitimate counteroffer.
However, North Korea has recently indicated it wants to shift the terms of the discussion from North Korean disarmament to a broader discussion of mutual disarmament on the Korean Peninsula. A North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman outlined this shift in a detailed statement on March 31, saying the "nuclear threat posed by Washington" must also be addressed at the talks.
Stanford professor John Lewis, who recently visited North Korea, told National Public Radio and the San Jose Mercury News this week that North Korean officials confirmed to him that they wanted to shift the terms of the six-party talks to include the U.S. arsenal.