U.S, officials met Monday with North Koreans on halting its nuclear weapons program and withdrew a threat to try to punish North Korea (search) soon with U.N. sanctions.

The meeting was requested by North Korea and held in New York, where the two sides had last met May 13, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

The U.S. aim is to resume six-nation negotiations after a nearly yearlong impasse. McCormack and other Bush administration officials did not say if the talks in New York made progress in that direction.

But in Tokyo, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said he believed North Korea wanted to return to the negotiations and resolve an international standoff over its nuclear weapons program.

"I believe that North Korea really does want somehow to hold six-party talks and resolve the matter," the Kyodo news agency quoted Koizumi as telling reporters during a visit to the 2005 World Expo in Aichi.

In the May 13 meeting, U.S. diplomats had urged the North Koreans to return to the negotiations. "We are hopeful that North Korea will be responding soon," White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said Monday. "We continue to urge North Korea to return to the six-party talks at an early date without preconditions."

State Department envoy Joseph DiTrani and James Foster, who is in charge of the department's office of Korean affairs, were the diplomats who met with North Korean officials.

In a conciliatory move, meanwhile, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said in Bangkok, Thailand, that no deadline had been set to bring the dispute to the U.N. Security Council (search).

Rumsfeld's statement nullified one by a senior defense official traveling with him that there could be a decision on going to the United Nations within weeks.

U.S. chances of punishing North Korea with economic or political sanctions would not be great, in any event, since China, which opposes sanctions generally, could veto a U.S. motion.

The insular North Korean government, meanwhile, has denounced sanctions as tantamount to a declaration of war.

Rumsfeld said news reports that the United States was setting a deadline on U.N. action were "incorrect and mischievous."

Word that the two sides had been in touch, at least by telephone, gave way Monday to the disclosure that new talks had been held in New York. But it did not soften North Korean rhetoric.

The state-run Korean Central News Agency excoriated the United States in several commentaries, saying the nuclear standoff cannot be defused "as long as the U.S. clings only to its anachronistic hostile policy toward the DPRK."

In the meantime, before Rumsfeld stepped in, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice disagreed with the anonymous Pentagon official's statement that action in the United Nations could be imminent.

"I think the idea that within weeks we are going to decide one way or another is a little forward-leaning, I would say," Rice told reporters traveling with her to a meeting of the Organization of American States in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

"I don't put timelines on things, and I think the president, he doesn't put timelines on issues," Rice said.

Last week, at an unannounced meeting in Washington, senior American negotiator Christopher Hill met with South Korean and Japanese diplomats and reaffirmed the strategy of using diplomacy to induce North Korea to halt its nuclear weapons programs.

The talks involve North and South Korea, the U.S., Japan, China and Russia.