SEOUL, South Korea – Washington's No. 2 diplomat said the U.S. is open to dialogue with North Korea if it helps get international nuclear disarmament talks started again, and urged the regime Wednesday to take advantage of the opportunity.
North Korea has been insisting on one-on-one talks with the U.S. after quitting broader six-nation talks on its nuclear program in April. Washington, which had demanded that the North first return to the talks, is now considering direct talks to push disarmament discussions forward.
"There's a tremendous opportunity now for them to take constructive measures," Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg told reporters in Seoul after meeting with South Korean officials.
Steinberg reiterated Washington's position that it is prepared for direct engagement with North Korea if it helps to resume the six-party talks involving the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Russia and Japan. He said North Korea should make clear that Pyongyang also is "prepared to engage on those terms."
"We hope that North Korea takes advantage of this," he said.
Steinberg's visit comes days before Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is to travel to Pyongyang. China, North Korea's biggest source of economic aid and diplomatic support, could be key in pushing for the resumption of the six-nation talks.
Pyongyang could announce its return to the nuclear talks and some concrete disarmament measures during Wen's Oct. 4-6 trip, while China may promise food and fuel aid in return, South Korea's Yonhap news agency said in a report earlier this week, citing unidentified diplomatic sources in Beijing.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il reportedly expressed a willingness to engage in "bilateral and multilateral talks" during a Sept. 18 meeting with Chinese presidential envoy Dai Bingguo. That appeared to indicate the country would reconsider returning to the six-party negotiations.
The country also has made a series of conciliatory gestures toward Seoul and Washington in recent months, including releasing Americans and South Koreans in its custody.
Steinberg, on an Asian tour that also included stops in Vietnam, Malaysia and China, travels to Japan later Wednesday.