North Korean and US officials meet

NEW YORK - US and North Korean officials met in New York today for the first time in nearly a month after Washington urged Pyongyang to return to stalled talks on its nuclear weapons program, US officials said.

"There was a New York channel meeting in New York. Our representatives met with North Korean representatives," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was attending a conference.

McCormack said Rice had not yet been briefed on the meeting and so could offer no reaction.

The United States was represented by Joseph DeTrani, the US special envoy to the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear ambitions, and by Jim Foster, director of the State Department's Office of Korean Affairs, said another US official in Washington, who asked not to be named.

Representing North Korea were UN Ambassador Pak Gil Yon and a deputy, Han Song Ryol, a State Department official said. Both men declined comment as they returned to their UN mission after the meeting.

No six-party talks have been held since June 2004. The six governments participating in those negotiations are China, Japan, South Korea and Russia in addition to North Korea and the United States.

North Korea requested Monday's face-to-face meeting last week, the official said.

'NEW YORK CHANNEL'

The United States and North Korea have in the past used what they call the "New York channel" to get in touch with one another as they do not have formal diplomatic relations.

Rice said the channel was for working-level contacts.

"We do not believe in bilateral negotiations with the North Koreans. We meet with the North Koreans in the context of the six-party talks," Rice said in an interview with CNN Espanol.

"We believe that this is the best way to make certain that North Korea gets a consistent and coherent message from all of the members of the neighbourhood that their nuclear weapons program simply has to go," she said.

The two sides had had no substantive discussions since their last face-to-face meeting in New York on May 13.

At that meeting, their first in five months, "we urged the North to return to six-party talks as the best path to solve the nuclear issue and to address the concerns of all the parties," the second US official said.

The Americans at that time asked the North Koreans to give their answer in person rather than through an announcement or telephone call, the official added.

"We are hopeful that North Korea will be responding soon," White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters travelling with President Bush to Florida for a conference of the Organisation of American States.

"We want to move forward on those talks and discuss in a serious way how to move forward on the proposal we outlined," McClellan said.

Asked if China was doing enough to persuade North Korea back to the talks, McClellan called Beijing a "partner" in the efforts and added: "There's always more that can be done."

The Bush administration has also been debating internally whether to take the North Korea case to the United Nations for possible sanctions, but Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld earlier played down the possibility of a quick decision.

"There's been no decision with respect to that at all," Rumsfeld told reporters in Bangkok, Thailand. "The government of the United States is on the path of six-party talks and that's where it is."

The administration tried to raise the North Korea nuclear issue in the Security Council in April 2003, but that effort went nowhere as China and Russia objected to Washington's proposal that the council adopt a statement condemning Pyongyang for reviving its nuclear program.

- REUTERS

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