The Bush administration said Thursday it would consider talks on a formal peace treaty with North Korea, if Pyongyang returned to the six-party talks on its nuclear program and committed to disarm. The Chinese-sponsored negotiations have been idle since November.
Administration officials say they're open to the idea of a formal peace treaty with Pyongyang. But they won't say if talks on such an accord - replacing the 1953 Korean war armistice - could start before North Korean nuclear disarmament is complete.
The comments followed a New York Times report Thursday that the administration was debating a refinement of U.S. policy, under which negotiations on a peace treaty and the nuclear talks could proceed in parallel once North Korean returned to the bargaining.
The Times quoted aides to President Bush as saying he is likely to approve the new approach, which would replace a U.S. insistence that any peace talks with North Korea would have to await that country's complete nuclear disarmament.
Spokesman for both the White House and State Department said they would not comment on any internal policy deliberations in Washington.
But the State Department's Sean McCormack said any discussion of a more normal relationship with Pyongyang would depend on North Korea returning to the six-party talks with a firm commitment to give up its nuclear weapons and related activity:
"It needs to make very clear, it needs to demonstrate that it has made a strategic decision to give up its nuclear weapons and all nuclear programs," said Sean McCormack. "That's what they signed up for in this joint statement. And if they do those things, then North Korea - we have made it clear and the other members of the six-party talks have made it clear - North Korea could realize a different kind of relationship with the rest of the world."
The Chinese-sponsored six-party talks produced the joint statement last September under which North Korea said it was prepared in principle to give up its nuclear weapons.
The other participants, the United States, South Korea, Japan, Russia and host China, expressed a willingness to reciprocate by providing Pyongyang with oil, other forms of aid and security guarantees.
However there have been no further negotiations since an inconclusive, brief round of talks in Beijing in November. South Korea and China have recently been urging the U.S. to make gestures that might draw North Korea back to the talks.
The issue expected to be on the agenda for Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Christopher Hill when he holds meetings with senior officials in Seoul and Beijing next week.
Hill, the chief U.S. delegate to the six-party talks, began an 11-day mission to the region Thursday at an ASEAN regional forum in Malaysia.