The Bush administration says it has cleared the way for a meeting between diplomats from North Korea's mission to the United Nations and former President Bill Clinton's diplomatic trouble-shooter Bill Richardson, who's now the New Mexico state governor. U.S. officials say the North Koreans may be carrying a response to this week's U.S. overture for talks on Pyongyang's nuclear program.
Officials here say the North Koreans initiated the contact with Governor Richardson, who then called Secretary of State Colin Powell and gained his permission for the diplomats to travel from New York to New Mexico.
The United States and North Korea do not have diplomatic relations, and State Department approval is required for that country's diplomats to travel beyond the New York area.
It's understood that the North Koreans are carrying an official message, possibly a response to the U.S. offer for talks contained in a joint U.S.-South Korean-Japanese policy statement issued Tuesday.
At a briefing, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the administration is anxious to hear whether Pyongyang is ready to undo nuclear steps since October that have drawn international condemnation and created a diplomatic crisis.
"We'll see what they have to communicate to Governor Richardson," he said. "If it is a more thought-out response, if it does indicate that they're prepared to promptly and verifiably dismantle their nuclear enrichment program, then it would be interesting. If it's not, it's not. If it is, it is."
Mr. Richardson was former President Clinton's U.N. ambassador, and carried out a number of sensitive diplomatic missions, to North Korea and elsewhere, during the past administration.
Mr. Boucher said the Bush White House is not upset that the North Koreans have reached out to a figure from the Clinton administration, saying what they have to say is more important than who they say it to.
Tuesday's joint statement said the United States is willing to talk to Pyongyang, but will not provide inducements for it to live up to its existing nuclear commitments. It also reaffirmed President Bush's statement that the United States poses no threat to, and has no intention of invading North Korea.
The administration has rejected Pyongyang's demand for a non-aggression treaty between the two countries as a way out of the current crisis.
But as Secretary of State Powell did in a Washington Post newspaper interview Thursday, spokesman Boucher indicated that U.S. security assurances, short of a treaty, might be possible.
"Whether there is something in between that might be done or not, we'll see. But the issue, as I said for us, is North Korea meeting its obligations," he said. "We've made that abundantly clear. We've made it clear it's for them to meet their obligations. But that doesn't rule out that some way might be found on the security issues."
Bush administration officials have also held out the prospect of broader talks on aid, and enhanced diplomatic status, for Pyongyang if its scraps the uranium-enrichment program it admitted having in October and rolls-back the other nuclear steps taken since then.
Officials here have said the administration was readying a so-called "bold approach" on relations with North Korea that had to be scrapped because of the uranium project and subsequent actions.
In related developments Thursday, Secretary of State Colin Powell telephoned his Chinese counterpart Tang Jiaxuan to discuss the North Korea nuclear issue, with spokesman Boucher stressing the commonality of view between the two powers on the need for a de-nuclearized Korean peninsula.
U.S. ambassador to Russia, Alexander Vershbow, meanwhile said Moscow should use more of the leverage it has with North Korea to convince it to comply with its nuclear commitments.
In a candid talk with reporters here, the U.S. envoy said Russia has been in "denial" about the dangers posed by North Korean nuclear weapons efforts and should join the United States in putting "much more substantial pressure" on Pyongyang to, in his words "pull back from the brink."