WASHINGTON -- Two senior State Department officials met last Friday with North Korean diplomats in New York in a quiet effort to convince the reclusive regime to return to negotiations over its nuclear program, the State Department confirmed yesterday.
The previously unpublicized meeting, the first face-to-face encounter between US and North Korean officials since December, occurred amid the deepening crisis over Pyongyang's nuclear program. Since September, North Korea has refused to return to the six-nation talks over ending its nuclear program with the United States, China, South Korea, Russia, and Japan.
Friday's meeting, attended by Joseph DiTrani, the US special envoy to the six-nation nuclear talks, as well as Jim Foster, the head of the State Department's Office of Korean Affairs, and North Korea's representatives to the United Nations, is significant because the Bush administration has been avoiding direct communication with North Korea, saying North Korea should stop delaying and do its talking through the six-party negotiations.
But in recent weeks, the sense of urgency over getting North Korea back to the bargaining table has grown. Pyongyang announced last week that it is harvesting plutonium for new bombs, and some US intelligence officials have said they think North Korea could be preparing for an underground nuclear test. Meanwhile, participants in the six-nation talks have grown restless, saying they will soon consider other options for dealing with North Korea.
Nancy Beck, a State Department spokeswoman, confirmed yesterday that US officials had ''working-level contact with North Korean officials" on Friday, using a term that refers to diplomatic contact below the highest levels. North Korea and the United States have no formal diplomatic relations, so meetings with North Korea's UN representatives are the only form of direct communication.
''We use this channel to convey messages about US policy, not to negotiate," Beck said.
Another State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States initiated the contact to encourage North Korea to return to the six-nation talks, but that it was unclear whether the meeting had made any impact.
Charles ''Jack" Pritchard, a former special envoy for the Bush administration to the North Korea talks, called the meeting ''notable" because the State Department had publicly rejected North Korea's request for a face-to-face meeting, conveyed two weeks ago by North Korea's official news service, but days later secretly arranged one.
''It should not be unusual -- there should be contacts all the time -- but it is for this administration," said Pritchard, who said that he was routinely discouraged from meeting North Korean officials at the United Nations and that the administration severely curtailed such contacts after he left his post.
The meeting is just one in a flurry of major diplomatic moves in Washington and Asia bent on restarting the talks.
Japan last week suggested convening five-party talks, without North Korea, and also mentioned the possibility of taking the issue of North Korea's weapons systems to the UN Security Council. This week, South Korea spent days in delicate talks with North Korea -- the first such face-to-face communications in 10 months -- promising the eventual delivery of a package of hefty economic aid should North Korea return to the six-nation negotiations.
China, on the other hand, increased pressure this week on Washington to be more flexible toward North Korea, announcing in uncharacteristically bald and public statements that the United States should accept North Korea's repeated requests to talk bilaterally, outside the six-nation process.
But the Bush administration has steadfastly refused to negotiate on its own with North Korea, believing that the only way to keep the pressure on the regime is to create a united front with North Korea's neighboring countries.
''The North Koreans have always been anxious to begin direct talks outside of the six-party process, and have probably made 10 or 15 approaches to the administration over the last several years for secret talks," said James Kelly, former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, who retired in January.
Senior US officials have said North Korea's requests for private meetings are simply a tactic meant to postpone international punishment for a nuclear program the regime does not want to give up.
''These guys just want to delay it, because they have worked for 40 years to build nuclear weapons," said Kelly, who added that it was not clear that North Korea would ever agree to dismantle its weapons program, and that if it did consider a deal, the price would almost certainly be too high for the international community to pay. Kelly said he thinks North Korea already has nuclear weapons.
''I personally have never been worried about a [nuclear] test," he said. ''A test would just tell us what we already know."
But Pritchard, who worked for a time under Kelly, said greater communication with North Korea might produce progress. He said the Bush administration's rigid restrictions on face-to-face meetings severely hampered the administration's ability to strike a deal.
''We, in front of others, began to look like a third world country," Pritchard said, describing how negotiators often had to read directly from talking points written in Washington. ''If they want to talk, you should be listening, even if they are saying the same thing over and over again. At some point in time, you are going to hear something new. You are going to make a better analysis of what they said. . . . Over a period of 25 meetings, there comes a point in time where we as individuals can get beyond the rhetoric, where we can say some things without having to rely on scripted talking points.
''You have got to explore that possibility of real dialogue before you declare failure. We haven't yet made a good-faith effort."