Diplomatic contacts are accelerating in advance of the planned resumption of six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program next week in Beijing. U.S. and North Korean diplomats have had three exchanges since last week, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice meets South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-Moon in Washington Tuesday.
Officials here say the U.S. and North Korean diplomats have had three exchanges through their so-called New York channel, including one Monday, to lay groundwork for more nuclear talks next week.
In the absence of diplomatic relations, the two countries have exchanged occasional messages through the North Korean mission to the United Nations in New York.
State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States initiated the flurry of exchanges last week with an offer to clarify points made by the U.S. team during the first phase of the latest round of six-party talks, which went into recess August 7.
He declined to provide details, but said U.S. officials believe there is a desire by all the parties to make progress toward the goal of the current round, which is a statement of principles to govern further negotiations.
Mr. McCormack said the U.S.-North Korean contacts did not deal with the Bush administration's appointment last week of a U.S. special envoy for human rights in North Korea.
The appointment of former White House aide Jay Lefkowitz was mandated by an act of Congress last year, and was announced Friday in a brief written statement from the White House.
The New York Times reported Saturday there was concern within the administration that the appointment might adversely affect the six-party talks, and that the announcement was deliberately low-key.
But under questioning, Spokesman McCormack said a White House announcement by its very nature is not low-key.
He said Mr. Lefkowitz will pursue concerns about North Korea's human rights record already raised by Secretary of State Rice among others, but that the envoy's work will be separate from the arms talks.
"I think you've heard directly from the Secretary in public on this issue," said McCormack. "So it is an issue that we will continue to speak out on, and an issue at this point that we see as separate from the six-party talks. The focus of the six-party talks is on attaining the goal of a de-nuclearized Korean peninsula. That is the shared goal of the parties in the talks, and that's what our focus is on now."
All parties to the talks agreed to resume the dialogue sometime next week, but no specific date has been set.
The chief U.S. delegate to the talks, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs Christopher Hill, met a South Korean envoy on the issue over the weekend and conferred over lunch Monday with a Chinese emissary.
Secretary of State Rice continues the dialogue Tuesday with her meeting with South Korean Foreign Minister Ban. A Japanese envoy will be in Washington later this week.
Mr. Ban told U.S. television interviewers Sunday North Korea appears willing to abandon its nuclear weapons program, and that a breakthrough is possible after the talks resume next week.
The South Korean official also raised the prospect that Pyongyang might be able to pursue peaceful nuclear activities, once it dismantled its weapons program and returned to U.N. nuclear safeguards.
The Bush administration has said it does not want North Korea to have any nuclear capacity after disarmament, partly because it violated a 1994 nuclear freeze accord with the United States.
Last year, the United States presented a proposal offering Pyongyang multi-lateral security guarantees and international aid in the context of an accord for a verifiable and irreversible end to its nuclear program.
The six-party talks, which began in 2003, include the United States, North and South Korea, Japan and Russia, as well as host China.