The United States said Monday it did not object to North Korea's decision to put back, by two weeks, the resumption of the six-party talks on Pyongyang's nuclear program. However, the State Department dismissed the reasons given by North Korea for the delay.
When the Chinese-sponsored talks recessed August 7, the participants, including North Korea, agreed by consensus that the negotiations would resume this week.
However, North Korea said Monday it would not return to the talks in Beijing, until the week of September 12, with a Foreign Ministry spokesman citing irritation over U.S.-South Korean military exercises, and the Bush administration's August 19 appointment of a special envoy for human rights in North Korea.
The spokesman said the naming of the human rights envoy, former White House aide Jay Lefkowitz, was an act of disregard for North Korea's sovereignty, and aimed at overthrowing its communist system.
He also said it is unimaginable that Pyongyang would sit at the negotiating table with the United States while military exercises targeted against it were underway.
At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the U.S.-South Korean maneuvers, which began a week ago and are to end shortly, are an annual defensive exercise that poses no threat to the North.
Mr. McCormack said the appointment of Mr. Lefkowitz was mandated by an act of Congress last year, though he added that advancing human rights in North Korea is something President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice whole-heartedly believe in: "We have spoken out very clearly on the issue of human rights around the world," he said. "We put out an annual human rights report, in which we speak very clearly about these issues. All of that said, the appointment of Mr. Lefkowitz doesn't have anything to do with the six-party talks. The focus of the six-party talks is to achieve a de-nuclearized Korean peninsula."
Mr. McCormack said the United States encourages all the parties to return to the talks at the earliest possible date, and if that is the week of September 12, then the U.S. team, led by Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs Christopher Hill, will be ready.
He said the Bush administration hopes all the delegations, including the North Koreans, come back to the table and resume the businesslike atmosphere they demonstrated during the previous session.
The initial phase of the current round lasted 13 days, and was marked by numerous one-on-one meetings between the U.S. and North Korean negotiators, in contrast to a far more distant relationship in previous rounds.
U.S. and North Korean officials have also had several exchanges since the recess through the North Korean mission to the United Nations.
The goal of the current round is agreement on a statement of principles to guide further negotiations.
Ambassador Hill said earlier this month, North Korea has yet to make a strategic decision to give up nuclear weapons.
Under a U.S. proposal presented last year, North Korea would get aid and multi-lateral security guarantees from the other parties to the talks in the context of an agreement for a verifiable and irreversible end to its nuclear program.
In addition to the United States, North Korea and host China, the six-party talks also include South Korea, Japan and Russia.