The State Department says its special envoy for the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program had a contact on the issue Thursday in New York with a senior North Korean diplomat. However, it says the encounter was not a negotiation.
North Korea has been eager to frame the issue of its nuclear program as a bilateral matter between Pyongyang and the United States.
But the Bush administration insists the proper forum for discussing the matter is the six-party talks hosted by China and including all the major powers in the region.
While acknowledging Thursday's contact with North Korea at a policy seminar in New York, the State Department says it was not a negotiation and that North Korea should provide a date for its return to the multi-lateral forum.
The U.S. envoy for the six-party talks Joseph DeTrani and the State Department's director for Korean affairs James Foster attended the privately-sponsored conference in New York along with, among others, representatives from Japan and both South and North Korea.
At a news briefing, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in the course of Thursday's session, Mr. DeTrani had a contact with the North Korean delegate, foreign ministry deputy director for North America Li Gun, however, Mr. McCormack minimized its significance.
"This was not a negotiation," said Sean McCormack. "Again, we will see whether North Korea responds to the overtures of others, such as the South Koreans have recently in meetings with the North Koreans, as well as the urgings of all the other members of the six-party talks, to return to those talks and engage in a constructive manner. And I would just end by saying that the proper venue to resolve substantive issues related to North Korea's nuclear program is in the six-party talks."
The spokesman provided no details of the conversation other than to say that it pertained to the nuclear issue, and occurred during a plenary session of the conference, hosted by the National Committee on American Foreign Policy.
Mr. DeTrani and other U.S. diplomats have also had occasional meetings in New York with North Korean diplomats posted at the United Nations, but those have been described here as opportunities to pass messages, as opposed to negotiations.
The six-party talks, which involve Russia, Japan and South Korea as well as the United States, North Korea and host China, have not convened since late June of 2004 when the United States presented a detailed proposal.
The Bush administration said it was ready to join in multi-lateral guarantees for North Korea's security in the context of an agreement for a verifiable end irreversible end to Pyongyang's nuclear program.
The United States has raised the prospect of aid and increased diplomatic links with North Korea after disarmament is complete. It has also said other parties to the talks could provide fuel oil and other forms of assistance to North Korea as the process unfolded.
North Korea has said repeatedly in recent weeks that it will return to the six-party talks but has given no time-frame.
Spokesman McCormack pressed Pyongyang to provide a date-certain for returning to the talks and responding to the U.S. proposal, which he said provides an opportunity for North Korea to gain the international respect and assistance it says it needs.