The State Department said Friday it is prepared to hold a bilateral meeting with North Korea with the aim of prodding Pyongyang to return to multilateral negotiations over its nuclear program. The decision follows a round of contacts by the U.S. envoy for North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, with other participants in the Chinese-sponsored six-party talks.
The Obama administration had been reluctant to engage directly with North Korea without a previous commitment by Pyongyang to return to the stalled nuclear talks.
But in the wake of the Bosworth mission to Asia, the State Department says it is now willing to hold a meeting without conditions to encourage the reclusive communist state to rejoin the six-party talks and live up to previous disarmament commitments.
At a news briefing, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs P.J. Crowley said the administration will accept an overture by Pyongyang for a meeting with Bosworth, though he said a date and venue were still to be arranged.
Crowley downplayed the notion of a major shift in a U.S. policy of only talking to Pyongyang as part of the six-party process, saying if a Bosworth meeting will bring North Korea back to negotiations, then in his words, why would we not do that? "Just to be clear. Any discussion that we would have with North Korea will be in the context of the six-party process. The propose of that discussion will be to try to convince North Korea to return to a multi-lateral process, and more specifically to go back to its obligations in its agreement in 2005 to de-nuclearize," he said.
North Korea agreed in principle in 2005 to scrap its nuclear program including weapons in return for energy aid and diplomatic benefits from the other parties to the talks, the United States, Russia, Japan, South Korea and host China.
But the negotiations stalled last year, and Pyongyang pulled out of the talks in April, protesting international criticism of a long-range missile test it depicted as a satellite launch.
North Korea has long made clear it preferred to discuss the nuclear issue bilaterally with Washington. But the United States has been reluctant, given the breakdown of a 1994 bilateral understanding under which Pyongyang froze operations at its main nuclear complex.
Bosworth, a retired senior U.S. diplomat and academic, met officials in Seoul, Beijing and Tokyo on his just completed Asia mission while the U.S. delegate to the six-party talks, Sung Kim, met his Russian counterpart.
A senior official said the envisaged meeting with North Korea is unlikely to occur before the U.N. General Assembly meeting later this month, where President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are expected to discuss the North Korea nuclear issue, among others, with world leaders.
Spokesman Crowley said there were no plans for Clinton to meet in New York with her North Korean counterpart.