Senior U.S., South Korean and Japanese diplomats convene in Washington Wednesday for two days of meetings to plan for multi-lateral talks on North Korea's nuclear program later this month in Beijing.
Officials say the talks will be informal and not a full-scale session of the tri-lateral U.S.-South Korea-Japan coordination and oversight group known as T-COG.
But the meeting will none-the-less be a critical planning opportunity in advance of the six-nation conference on the North Korean nuclear program due to open Beijing August 27.
The United States, China and North Korea held an initial inconclusive round of talks on the nuclear issue in Beijing last April.
U.S. officials hope the addition of Japan, South Korea and Russia at the upcoming round will add to the pressure on Pyongyang to give up its nuclear ambitions, and also bring to the table more countries that might be part of a settlement of the crisis.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs James Kelly will host the State Department meetings, to be joined by South Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Lee Su-Hyuck and Japanese Foreign Affairs Ministry Director-General Mitoji Yabunaka.
On the eve of the meeting here, U.S. officials confirmed that the State Department's Undersecretary for Arms Control Affairs, John Bolton, will not be part of the U.S. delegation to the upcoming talks in Beijing.
But they insisted that this is unrelated to a recent demand by North Korea that Mr. Bolton, a sharp critic of the communist government in Pyongyang, be banned from the Beijing meeting.
At a news briefing, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said it is logical that Mr. Bolton will not participate, since he was not part of the April session in China. But he stressed that the administration is not allowing North Korea to dictate its delegation choices. "I don't have any information on who will lead the delegation. I'm simply making the point that the decision will be made clearly by the President and Secretary [of State]. The U.S. delegation will be determined by the U.S., not by anybody else," he said.
North Korea said earlier this month it would not deal with Mr. Bolton after the undersecretary, in remarks in South Korea, described life in North Korea as a "hellish nightmare" and called that country's leader Kim Jong-Il a "tyrannical dictator."
The North Korean official news media have since carried several personal attacks on Mr. Bolton including a depiction of him last week as "human scum" and a provocateur, comments the State Department said it "would not dignify" with a response.
The State Department has said Mr. Bolton's original remarks in Seoul were cleared in advance by the Bush administration, and that the speech reflected what one senior official said were "some obvious truths."