WASHINGTON, Aug 26 – The United States on Tuesday opened the door a notch to North Korea, saying it was ready to sit down once Pyongyang returns to a six-nation nuclear deal, but denied envoys had set a trip to the communist state.
South Korean media said the reclusive state had issued invitations to the two US pointmen on North Korea — Stephen Bosworth and Sung Kim — in a bid to break months of soaring tension.
The JoongAng Ilbo daily, quoting diplomatic sources, said Bosworth accepted to go to Pyongyang next month. The US State Department refused to confirm or deny it received an invitation but said that no visit was scheduled.
"We have no plans — Ambassador Bosworth has no plans, Ambassador Kim has no plans — to go to North Korea," Kelly told reporters.
But in a slight easing of language, Kelly said that the United States would sit down with the North Koreans if they agreed to return to six-party disarmament talks which they abandoned in April.
The United States has long stood firm that any bilateral talks come only within the framework of six-party talks, which also include China, Japan, Russia and South Korea.
"We are fully aware that the North Koreans would like to have bilateral talks but they are also fully aware of our position on this — that we will not have bilateral talks until they agree to return to six-party talks," Kelly said.
Pressed on whether he meant the United States could speak to the North with an agreement but not an actual resumption of six-way talks, Kelly repeated: "If they agree to six-party talks, then we’ll sit down with them."
President Barack Obama’s administration, which has made reaching out to US adversaries such as Iran and Cuba a signature policy, has taken a hard line with North Korea which confronted the new US team with one of its first crises.
But North Korea — which earlier this year tested a nuclear bomb and fired a missile over Japan — has lowered tensions in August.
It freed two journalists to former US president Bill Clinton, removed border restrictions on South Koreans and sent two envoys to meet with New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, a regular interlocutor for North Korea.
Some observers see the moves as signs that North Korea is feeling the pressure of a raft of UN-led sanctions, while others see Pyongyang reaching out to the outside world.
Asia Society scholar John Delury, who recently returned from a five-day trip to North Korea, said he was struck by the warm welcome that North Koreans extended to him and other US visitors.
"It did suggest to me that the environment in North Korea is one where they’re getting indicators that a thaw is occurring," said Delury, associate director of the New York-based Asia Society’s Center on US-China Relations.
"I think the ball is now in the US and South Korea’s court to decide how to play this," he said.
"There is a lot of self-fulfilling prophecy. If the Obama administration is determined to see only the negative here and mistrust any gestures, then it’s not going to strengthen those in North Korea who are saying let’s open up, let’s go back to the dialogue," he said.
Some North Korea watchers, particularly conservatives, argue that the communist state is determined to keep its nuclear weapons no matter what, meaning that any dialogue is likely to yield only meager results.