The Obama administration says it welcomes a series of seemingly-conciliatory gestures from North Korea in recent days but says it is not ready to say relations with Pyongyang have begun to thaw. North Korean diplomats met Wednesday with New Mexico state Governor Bill Richardson.
State Department officials say the Obama administration facilitated the meeting between Richardson and the two North Koreans, but they say the governor was not asked to convey any message to Pyongyang and that it is too early to say if the troubled relationship is beginning to thaw.
Richardson, who has been a diplomatic troubleshooter for past U.S. administrations to North Korea and elsewhere, met North Korea's United Nations ambassador and another senior diplomat at his official residence in Santa Fe, and called the meeting a hopeful sign of improved relations.
The unusual meeting followed an August 4 mission to Pyongyang by former President Bill Clinton, who secured the release of two American journalists jailed there for a border-crossing violation.
There have also been gestures by Pyongyang in recent days apparently aimed at restoring exchanges with South Korea.
The moves follow a period of months in which a belligerent North Korea tested a second nuclear device and a long-range missile and quit Chinese-sponsored six-party talks on its nuclear program.
A senior State Department official told reporters Wednesday the latest developments are welcome after what he said had been a steady drumbeat of very aggressive rhetoric and unhelpful actions by North Korea, though he said he wouldn't characterize the situation now as a thaw in relations.
At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Ian Kelly said the goal of U.S. policy continues to be the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, and a return by Pyongyang to the six-party talks in which it has been offered aid and diplomatic incentives to disarm.
"What we want to see is to see them agree to return to the six-party talks. I'm just not going to stand here and say that this is somehow an indication that they're going to return. They just need to tell us they're going to return," he said.
The United States does not have diplomatic relations with North Korea and North Korean diplomats attached to that country's U.N. mission are normally restricted from traveling beyond a 40-kilometer radius from New York.
Kelly said the decision to allow the diplomats to visit Richardson in New Mexico was made at a high-level in the State Department but that the clearance was routine and that such travel is approved on a fairly regular basis.
The two North Koreans are also understood to have been given permission to visit Las Vegas and Los Angeles on the same trip.
Former President Clinton met President Obama at the White House Tuesday to brief him on his North Korea mission.
The New York Times Wednesday, quoting U.S. officials familiar with the trip, said the former President - who dined with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il - found him in unexpectedly spry condition despite reports of serious illness.
The newspaper said Mr. Clinton advised the North Korean leader to resolve cases of Japanese and South Korean citizens believed abducted by North Korea in past years, but that there was no substantive discussion of the nuclear issue.
State Department officials have suggested Pyongyang's seeming change of attitude of late may be related to an administration push for enforcement of U.N. Security Council sanctions stemming from its May 25 nuclear test.