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US Spurns Separate-Channel Talks With North Korea

The Obama administration said Thursday it is not interested in direct talks with North Korea outside the framework of Chinese-sponsored six-party talks on its nuclear program. North Korean diplomats who met Wednesday with New Mexico governor Bill Richardson are said to have told him Pyongyang is ready for direct dialogue with the United States after months of discord.

The State Department says the Obama administration is certainly in favor of improved relations with North Korea but is holding to its stand that dialogue with Pyongyang should come within the framework of the six-party talks.

The comments here follow an unusual meeting Wednesday between two senior North Korean diplomats and New Mexico state governor Bill Richardson, who has been a diplomatic troubleshooter with past administrations and has visited North Korea.

Richardson said the North Korean officials from that country's United Nations mission in New York told him Pyongyang believes it is owed bilateral talks with the United States after it released two American journalists it had jailed for illegally entering the country.

In an interview with CNN, Richardson said the diplomats told him North Korea has made an important gesture with the release and is saying, as the governor put it, that the ball is now in the U.S. court.

At a news briefing here, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs P.J. Crowley said the release of the two American women and other conciliatory gestures North Korea has made recently is certainly preferable to provocations by Pyongyang in recent months including missile firings.

He said the Obama administration is willing to have bilateral talks with North Korea but in the larger framework of the six-party process with other concerned regional powers including South Korea, Japan, Russia and host China.

"We believe that the six-party process remains the best mechanism to resolve the questions that we have, the tensions that we have, the issues that we have with North Korea," said P.J. Crowley. "As we've made clear to North Korea for a long time, within the six-party framework there's plenty of room for a bilateral dialogue but North Korea knows what it has to do: it has to come back to the six-party process, and be willing to take the kinds of steps that the international community has made clear that it needs to do. And the ball is still in North Korea's court. It has to tell us what it is prepared to do."

Crowley said the State Department is awaiting a report on the meeting from Governor Richardson, who the Obama administration made clear was not negotiating on its behalf.

The meeting in New Mexico came in the wake of former President Bill Clinton's visit to North Korea earlier this month that gained the release of the two journalists and included a rare meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

Pyongyang also recently released a detained South Korean citizen and made other conciliatory gestures toward its neighbor.

Spokesman Crowley suggested the changed attitude by North Korea can be attributed to the pressure of stepped up U.S. enforcement efforts of sanctions against Pyongyang approved by the U.N. Security Council after its nuclear test in May.