US offers direct talks with North Korea
The United States sought to coax North Korea back to the negotiating table on Monday by saying it viewed the nation as sovereign and would hold direct talks as part of six-party nuclear discussions.
U.S. officials have said this before, but repeating the positions was significant one day after North Korea said it wanted clarification on both points before deciding whether to resume talks about ending its suspected nuclear arms programs.
Chinese and South Korean leaders over the weekend called for resolving the matter through peaceful dialogue following a report last week that some U.S. officials believe North Korea may be preparing for a nuclear test.
The United States regards the six-way talks among North Korea and South Korea, China, Russia Japan and itself as the best way to persuade Pyongyang to give up nuclear arms in exchange for U.S. security guarantees and economic incentives from others.
"The United States, of course, recognizes that North Korea is sovereign," US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told CNN in an interview in Moscow, echoing a statement she first made in March during visit to Japan, China and South Korea.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Tom Casey noted U.S. and North Korean officials met separately in each of the three rounds of six-party talks hosted by China since 2003, adding: "if the North Koreans were to return to the talks, we'd certainly continue that practice."
On Sunday, a spokesman for North Korea appeared to soften its position of rejecting talks outright for now by saying Pyongyang wanted to meet U.S. officials to confirm reports Washington was ready to recognize the North as a sovereign state and hold bilateral talks within the six-party process.
North Korean and U.S. officials have met in the past at the United Nations, using the so-called "New York channel," but it was not clear whether it might be used now. A U.S. official said the last such meeting took place in December.
A State Department official suggested Washington wanted to send a conciliatory signal.
"We want them to get back to the talks ... and acknowledging positive statements is part of that process," said the U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the North Korea diplomacy.
This official said the United States had not heard anything via China, South Korea or Japan saying Pyongyang would return to the talks.
"We'd much rather hear them (the North Koreans) speculating on coming back than saying absolutely no way ... are we going to," he said, saying it was hard to interpret North Korean statements.
Diplomats and analysts note North Korea has in the past sought a face-saving way back to the table.
The North Korean foreign ministry spokesman was also quoted as saying "our will to denuclearize the Korean peninsula and seek a negotiated solution to it still remains unchanged."
Amid the North Korean hints, Chinese President Hu Jintao and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun in Moscow called for a peaceful resolution through dialogue and agreed in a meeting to increase high-level diplomatic efforts to resume talks.
Japan's top government spokesman said he saw some positive signs in the North Korean statement.
"A response that is a step forward has emerged. The situation in which they proceed with nuclear development ... cannot be good for North Korea," said Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda.
Lee Dong-bok, a senior associate and specialist on North Korea's negotiating behavior with the CSIS think tank, said there was a danger to addressing North Korean conditions.
"If you fall into their trap and address those conditions, you are going to find North Korea acting like an eel. Every time you try to grasp it, it will slip out of your hands," he said.