SEOUL, South Korea – Japan's foreign minister urged North Korea (search) on Tuesday to seize the opportunity to return to six-party talks on its nuclear weapons programs without conditions, following a rare meeting between U.S. and North Korean officials in New York.
The six-party disarmament talks stalled almost a year ago. Since then, North Korea has declared it has atomic bombs, claiming they were a deterrent against a possible attack by the U.S.
"It's been one year since the six-way talks have stalled and the international community has reached a consensus that (North Korea) should respond to the calls," Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura told reporters.
"North Korea should not miss this opportunity and (agree to a resumption) without setting conditions," he added.
The United States met Monday with North Korea on halting its nuclear weapons program, and Washington withdrew a threat to try to punish the North Koreans soon with U.N. sanctions. The meeting was requested by North Korea, a U.S. official said.
Japanese leaders have voiced optimism that North Korea is warming to the idea of resuming the talks, which it has been boycotting. Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda reiterated that on Tuesday.
"Judging from their amount of recent contacts, it is progress, and we hope it would lead to a resumption of the six-way talks," Hosoda said.
He added, however, that North Korea has not yet pledged to return to the bargaining table.
"It is too early to decide whether this would immediately lead to the resumption of the talks," Hosoda said. The talks include the United States, North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan and Russia.
The U.S. reiterated its call for a resumption of negotiations.
"We are hopeful that North Korea will be responding soon," White House press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters Monday. "We continue to urge North Korea to return to the six-party talks at an early date without preconditions."
At an Asian security conference in Singapore on Saturday, U.S. and Japanese officials said the issue could be taken to the United Nations for possible sanctions within weeks — a move North Korea says would be tantamount to a declaration of war.
But on Monday, Machimura said sanctions are not the only options and that the international community should consider using the power of U.N. Security Council to urge North Korea to return to the negotiation table if the talks are not resumed anytime soon, Kyodo News agency reported.
"A statement by the council president or a resolution, conveying the voices of international society to North Korea that they should return to the talks as soon as possible, would be have significant meaning," Machimura was quoted as saying in a speech in Tokyo Monday. "Sanctions are not the only options."
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search) also downplayed those comments on Monday, saying the U.S. has not set a deadline to decide whether to bring the issue of North Korea's nuclear weapons program to the United Nations (search).