The United States and North Korea have begun landmark talks that could lead to establishment of normal diplomatic relations. VOA's Peter Heinlein in New York reports U.S. officials are downplaying expectations for the talks.

More than half a century after the end of the Korean war, American and North Korean officials sat down together at a New York hotel to discuss how to go about normalizing relations. North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill held an early evening session and shared dinner.

More meetings are set for Tuesday.

The United States agreed to the talks last month as part of a six-nation deal to end North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

Diplomats played down expectations for the private meetings. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said they were unlikely to lead to an immediate breakthrough.

"I would caution you this is a first meeting, and this is more about setting the norms of how this working group will proceed, and some of the agenda items, certainly from our side but also on the North Korean side that they might consider in this group," he said.

McCormack said Assistant Secretary of State Hill would use the talks to explain to his North Korean counterpart how the process might lead to a review of Washington's listing Pyongyang as a state sponsor of terrorism, and the eventual establishment of normal trade relations.

Mc Cormack says Hill is laying out a step-by-step process in which good faith actions by North Korea in abandoning its nuclear weapons program would meet with corresponding good faith actions by the United States. He described the process as "performance based."

"You make an assessment based on performance, and based on performance you either decide to either proceed forward or not," he said, "and this is going to be a judgment made by the six parties, and as for what specific verification regime might come about to ensure international system that North Korea has in fact denuclearized the Korean peninsula, that it has in fact come clean about all of its nuclear programs and that is going to be the subject of discussion."

Diplomats say the United States will demand assurances from North Korea that it is committed to shutting down its main nuclear facility within 60 days, in return for emergency energy aid.

Before the start of the talks Monday, North Korea's Vice Foreign Minister Kim stopped at New York's non-profit Korea Society for an informal chat with American foreign policy experts, including former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright. A statement issued afterward said the group had discussed the issue of normalizing relations in a "friendly and forthcoming atmosphere".