A senior State Department official said Monday he thinks North Korea is preparing to return to Chinese-sponsored six-party talks on its nuclear program. U.S. and North Korean diplomats discussed the issue in New York last week. 

The senior State Department official, who spoke to reporters on terms of anonymity, said that given past disappointments he was reluctant to use the word optimistic in discussing prospects for renewed talks.

But he said the working-level New York meeting of U.S. and North Korean diplomats on Monday of last week was constructive.

He said he believes the leadership in Pyongyang is now trying to "figure out" a politically graceful way to return to the negotiations after a break of nearly a year.

The six-party talks last convened in Beijing late last June, when the United States presented a detailed proposal offering political and economic incentives for Pyongyang to end its nuclear weapons program.

The senior official, who is closely involved in Korean diplomacy, said he believes coming back to the talks is "not only the smart solution, but the only solution" for Pyongyang.

He called developing nuclear weapons a "dead end" and said North Korea needs to disarm if it wishes to end its political isolation and gain the outside assistance it badly needs.

In the proposal last June, the United States offered to be part of multi-lateral guarantees for North Korea's security if it verifiably and irreversibly dismantled its nuclear program.

U.S. officials offered no immediate aid to North Korea, but said other participants in the talks could provide North Korea with fuel oil and other forms of aid as the disarmament process unfolded.

The state of the six-party talks dominated last Friday's White House meeting between President Bush and South Korean President Roh Moo-Hyun.

The senior official insisted the two leaders have a common approach to the negotiations and that there was no pressure from Seoul for more U.S. flexibility.

At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the focus at the White House meeting was where it should be, on getting North Korea back to talks.

"We both agree fully on the six-party talks as the framework to resolve the question of North Korean nuclear programs, and the de-nuclearization of the Korean peninsula, and we both underscored the importance of, and the need for, North Korea to return to the six-party talk and engage in a constructive manner. We have a serious proposal on the table at the six-party talks and would encourage the North Korea to engage in a constructive manner," Mr. McCormack said.

The six party talks involve South Korea, Russia and Japan as well as the United States, North Korea and the host country China.

The Bush administration has resisted direct arms negotiations with Pyongyang given, among other things, the failure of the nuclear freeze agreement the Clinton administration reached with North Korea in 1994.

The senior official who spoke here said the multilateral approach is essential given that other participants in the six-party talks, notably South Korea and Japan, would be expected to provide Pyongyang with aid under an agreement.

The official reiterated that decisions on U.S. food aid to North Korea are unrelated to the arms talks.

The United States is traditionally the single largest supplier of food aid to the north through the U.N. World Food Program, but the Bush administration has made no aid pledge this year despite reports that needs are critical.

The senior official, while making no specific commitment, said the administration "will do what is appropriate" on food aid, based on North Korea's needs, competing demands from other countries and the transparency of the food distribution process there.