WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) was upbeat Tuesday in discussing the latest statement from North Korea, in which the Communist nation appeared to offer a freeze of its nuclear weapons program as an opening step in a broader agreement.
"It was an interesting statement, it was a positive statement. They, in effect, said they won't test, and they implied that they would give up all aspects of their nuclear program, not just weapons programs," Powell told reporters.
The White House, however, took a more sober approach to the news, delivered via a North Korean government Web site, that Pyongyang would freeze both its nuclear weapons and power development.
Senior officials said the news "is the same old offer" that President Bush has repeatedly rejected.
"North Korea is trying to change the subject, they're good at manipulating the media by making these pronouncements," said one official.
In December, President Bush made clear during a meeting with a leader of China, a key member of multi-lateral talks with North Korea, that a freeze is not enough.
"The goal of the United States is not for a freeze of the nuclear program; the goal is to dismantle a nuclear weapons program in a verifiable and irreversible way," Bush said.
Pyongyang seemed to be offering a nuclear freeze as a first step, but only in return for some concessions by the United States and others. It, however, appeared to acknowledge that a freeze would not be the end of the process, and suggested it would neither test nor produce nuclear weapons in preparation for the next round of six-way talks.
"This is a starting point and a core issue of furthering the process of talks," the Web site reads.
That's closer to what a skeptical White House wants to hear. As it has tried to refrain from doing anything to encourage the idea of a freeze, which Pyongyang has repeatedly tried to sell as the end of the process, it has also steadfastly refused to negotiate bilaterally.
Negotiators have been trying to organize another round of six-way talks to convince North Korea to give up its weapons program, and White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the White House looks forward to future discussions. Besides the United States and North Korea, talks would include North Korea's neighbors, China, South Korea, Russia and Japan.
"I think it would be positive for North Korea to return to those six-party talks, so we can discuss how they go about ending their nuclear weapons program," he said.
Powell quickly embraced the mention of returning to the negotiations.
"This is an interesting step on their part, positive step, and we hope that it will allow us to move more rapidly toward six-party framework talks," he said.
But McClellan expressed skepticism, in part, because the offer arrived via Internet. He suggested that if Pyongyang has something to propose, it should do so at the negotiating table.
"I think that those are discussions that are best had in the next round of talks," he said.
The tone at the State Department and the White House were noticeably different.
While one official said there are no "furrowed brows" at the White House, the State Department is actively seeking an opportunity to get the next round of talks going. Powell made clear that efforts to bring North Korea back to the table did not take a holiday break.
"Just because we're not sitting at the table does not mean we have not been talking to each other, and a lot of papers have gone back and forth," Powell said. "And we are in touch with our four partners in this effort, and some of our partners are directly in touch with North Korea. So we've been doing a lot."
However, the State Department added, the recent announcement by North Korea is not connected to the arrival there of congressional staff members, a retired Stanford professor, a former State Department negotiator on Korea and a nuclear expert and former head of Los Alamos (search) national lab.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher and the group have both said the visit is not being conducted on behalf of the administration, but the group is seeking access to one of the North Korean nuclear reactor sites at Yongbyon (search). No one knows for sure when that will happen, but the group, which arrived Tuesday, is staying until the weekend.
Even with differing outlooks — an encouraged State Department and a cautious White House — the administration is clearly in lockstep in saying that no surefire way exists to know if the North Koreans have seen the light on nuclear weapons except by returning to the negotiating table and having them put their cards on the table.
Fox News' Jim Angle and Teri Schultz contributed to this report.