The Obama administration reaffirmed Tuesday it is not interested in talks with North Korea outside the framework of Chinese-sponsored six-party negotiations on that country's nuclear program. South Korean news reports say Pyongyang has invited two U.S. senior diplomats to visit next month.
At the same time, South Korean media say the country's Red Cross delegation is due to travel to North Korea Wednesday for talks on resuming reunions of families separated by the 1950-1953 Korean War.
The State Department says the United States wants talks with North Korea but only in the framework of nuclear negotiations Pyongyang quit earlier this year in anger over international criticism of an attempted satellite launch.
After several months of tension during which it conducted a second nuclear test and rolled back disarmament steps, North Korea has recently made conciliatory gestures toward the United States and South Korea, including the release of two American journalists jailed for illegally entering its territory.
Two North Korean diplomats who visited New Mexico state governor and occasional U.S. diplomatic troubleshooter Bill Richardson last week told him they believe Pyongyang is owed bilateral talks with Washington because of its recent gestures.
South Korean newspapers said Tuesday Pyongyang has invited U.S. North Korea envoy Stephen Bosworth and U.S. six-party talks chief delegate Sung Kim to visit next month.
But at a news briefing here, State Department Spokesman Ian Kelly said having a discussion channel outside the six-party framework would disenfranchise the other participants in the nuclear talks, South Korea, Japan, Russia and host China.
"We would welcome talks with North Korea but only in the context of multi-lateral talks," he said. "What we're concentrating on right now is consulting with our four-party partners on what the best way forward is in reaching our goal, which is getting North Korea to return to the six-party talks with the ultimate goal of the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula," he added.
Kelly would not say if a formal invitation for a visit by diplomats Bosworth and Kim had been received, but said the United States has various channels of communication with Pyongyang and that it is no secret North Korea would like such talks.
The spokesman said he expects Bosworth, who was part of the official U.S. delegation to Sunday's funeral of the late South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, to return to the region soon but with no plans to visit North Korea.
Kelly at one point in the briefing said the United States would sit down with North Korea if it agreed to return to the nuclear talks, but later called such a scenario speculative.
North Korea agreed in principle in 2005 to scrap its nuclear program including weapons in return for aid and diplomatic benefits from other parties to the talks. But the process broke down last year in a dispute over verifying Pyongyang's declared nuclear assets.