A U.S. official says North Korea could have the high-level, one-on-one conversation with the United States that it has long requested. The offer is being described as a new approach to dealing with Pyongyang - but comes attached to a long-standing demand that the North fulfill its nuclear disarmament pledges.
The U.S. ambassador to South Korea says Washington is ready to send Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill to North Korea - if Pyongyang makes the right decision.
Hill is the chief U.S. delegate to six-nation talks aimed at eliminating North Korea's nuclear weapons capabilities. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow on Tuesday told South Korean officials that Hill would meet one-on-one with his North Korean counterpart if Pyongyang agrees to return to the nuclear talks.
In the past, the U.S. had said it would hold a bilateral meeting only after North Korea had returned to the nuclear talks.
Last year North Korea promised South Korea, the United States, Japan, China, and Russia it would end its nuclear programs. Pyongyang has since boycotted the six-nation talks in protest of U.S. sanctions related to alleged North Korean money laundering and counterfeiting.
A former top U.S. diplomat who was in Seoul Tuesday says he is pessimistic about the talks reconvening anytime soon.
Richard Armitage, who until last year was deputy secretary of state, told reporters here he thinks Pyongyang will bide its time.
"I think the North Koreans are of the opinion that we are mired down in Iraq and Afghanistan and Iran, that we can't be very innovative and flexible with them. I think they are likely to wait it out until the next administration, " he said.
The next U.S. presidential election is in 2008, and the next president will not take office until January 2009.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to visit Asia within the next two months, during which she says she will make "one last push" to get the nuclear talks restarted.
Diplomacy aimed at resolving the nuclear issue took on added urgency in July, when North Korea defied international warnings and test-launched several missiles.
There are now concerns that Pyongyang will raise the diplomatic stakes by conducting its first nuclear weapons test.
Some regional analysts, however, are not certain a nuclear test is likely.
Peter Beck, northeast Asia director for the International Crisis Group research organization, says a test could paint North Korea into a corner.
"What the North Koreans have always had on their side is the element of surprise and ambiguity," he said. "If they test, they lose, essentially, their final trump card."
The United States and the other nations in the six-party talks have indicated a nuclear test would have grave consequences for North Korea. South Korea, which has suspended most of its food aid to the impoverished North, has a test would harm efforts at inter-Korean cooperation.