The top United Nations envoy to the Korean peninsula is downplaying Pyongyang's demand for direct talks with Washington on its nuclear weapons program.  The envoy predicts an eventual return to six-party negotiations.

Special U.N. envoy Maurice Strong Friday charged that bellicose rhetoric has elevated the climate of hostility and misunderstanding between Washington and Pyongyang.

Speaking to reporters, Ambassador Strong described North Korea's announcement of its nuclear capability, and its demand for one-on-one talks with the United States, as a serious bump in the road to peace.

But he said the way forward is still the six-party talks involving the two Koreas, the United States, Russia, China, and Japan. He refers to North Korea by its initials DPRK.

"I remind you that the six-party negotiations have not been cancelled, the DPRK has simply said it is not prepared to continue, to participate under conditions they have described, but they have not annulled those, and I believe we should regard this not as the end of negotiating process but as a blip, difficult yes, an unhappy twist in road but nevertheless the road to negotiations still runs through the six-party talks," said Mr. Strong.

A North Korean diplomat at the United Nations suggested Friday that there would be no more six-party talks. Pyongyang's deputy U.N. ambassador Han Song Ryol told the Associated Press the multilateral negotiations were, in his words, "an old story.?  In what appeared to be a note of finality, he added "no more."

In earlier comments published in a South Korean newspaper, Ambassador Han said North Korea would only return to the six-party talks if Washington changed what he called its "hostile" policy.

Special U.N. envoy Strong, a former Canadian diplomat, says Secretary-General Kofi Annan has instructed him to intensify efforts to re-start the six-party talks. He expressed optimism that the multilateral approach would succeed, if only because the alternatives are frightening.

"I expect there will be a peaceful solution because the consequences of not resolving this issue are so horrendous for all parties that itself provides a strong incentive to overcome the distrust, deep-seated distrust and hostility that has been bottled up over the last 50 years between the parties, and particularly the principal parties or the most contentious parties, the DPRK and the United States," added Mr. Strong.

Ambassador Strong said despite the harsh rhetoric coming from Pyongyang, he sees encouraging signs that North Korea is about to break out of its political and economic isolation.

"There's obviously a process of change occurring, there's some evidence of that, we can's see into that society sufficiently to know exactly what they are, but we know that change is occurring there, and we can hope that that change will lead to the peace that they need and everyone else wants," noted Mr. Strong.

The U.N. envoy said despite recent setbacks, a long view of events on the Korean peninsula shows significant progress in easing tensions. He noted that for 50 years there were no negotiations, and every attempt at a diplomatic solution failed.

The six-party talks began in September, 2003. Three rounds have been held, but a fourth scheduled for last September failed when North Korea refused to attend.