The State Department is sending a senior envoy to China and Japan next week to discuss ways of coaxing North Korea back to multi-lateral negotiations over its nuclear program. The Obama administration is considering direct outreach to Pyongyang on the issue.
The dispatch of Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs Kurt Campbell to the region reflects a quickening pace of consultations on efforts to revive the Chinese-sponsored six-party talks on the North Korean nuclear program, which have been stalled since last year.
North Korea leader Kim Jong-il is reported to have told visiting Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao this week he is willing to return to the negotiations depending on the outcome of bilateral talks with the United States he wants first.
The United States has resisted making the nuclear issue a bilateral matter between Washington and Pyongyang. But the Obama administration has signaled a readiness to send its envoy on North Korea Stephen Bosworth to Pyongyang, if it would foster a resumption of the six-party talks.
State Department Spokesman Ian Kelly reiterated that position in a talk with reporters.
"We haven't made any decision on whether or not to have these bilateral talks," said Ian Kelly. "You know what our position is: we're open to it. But we are only open to a kind of bilateral dialogue that would lead to the resumption of six-party talks."
Kelly said Chinese officials have briefed U.S. diplomats on Prime Minister Wen's talks in Pyongyang, which appeared to yield more conciliatory signals from North Korea on the nuclear issue.
Pyongyang agreed in principle in 2005 to scrap its nuclear program in return for aid and diplomatic benefits from the other parties to the talks.
But the talks bogged down last year over Pyongyang's refusal to accept a plan to verify its declared nuclear assets and activities. North Korea quit the process entirely in protest of a U.N. Security Council censure of its long-range missile test last April.
Assistant Secretary of State Campbell, who will lead a team that includes Pentagon officials, is due to arrive in Tokyo next Sunday and go to Beijing the following day.
His agenda includes regional issues in addition to North Korea, and in Tokyo is expected to discuss the status of U.S. troops based on Okinawa.
The new left-leaning Tokyo government has said it wants to review the issue with the aim of easing the burden for the population of the southern Japanese island.
The Obama administration said shortly after the Japanese election in August it would not reopen negotiations on a base-realignment agreement finalized earlier this year, but has said it is willing to discuss Japanese concerns.