WASHINGTON – North Korea's willingness to re-open talks with the United States sounded like a major breakthrough on a long-standing U.S. offer, but the final assessment is not as promising as the news suggested.
North Korea announced Wednesday it had "carefully examined the U.S. side's position and decided to resume the negotiations" with the U.S.-led international consortium — the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, or KEDO — after postponing a scheduled meeting last month.
Wednesday's statement refers only to suspended talks with the United States, South Korea and Japan on modernizing two nuclear reactors, and not the wide-ranging discussions the White House proposed in February on resuming a security dialog on ending Pyongyang's development of missiles and weapons of mass destruction.
The nuclear facilities are not able to produce weapons, though North Korea is suspected of having enough plutonium to build one or two atomic bombs.
"We continue to await a response from North Korea to our long-standing proposal to meet with them on broader issues of concern," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Wednesday.
The ambiguity of the North Korean statement may not have been accidental, analysts say.
"I think they were trying to leave the door open, as they usually do, and trying to keep everybody on their toes, guessing about their willingness actually to come to the table," said Balbina Hwang, an expert on Korea.
North Korea's statement also made any return to the negotiating table conditional on American behavior.
"Groundless slanders against the DPRK should not be repeated and, if such things happen, it will regard the U.S. position as deceptive," said a report by the North Korean Government News Agency.
The White House responded by saying the president will continue to characterize North Korea as a member of the so-called "axis of evil" with Iraq and Iran.
"I am concerned about a country that is not transparent, that allows for starvation, that develops weapons of mass destruction," Bush said in February during a trip to South Korea.
Fleischer repeated Wednesday that Bush will not back down.
"The president will continue to speak out forthrightly about what he sees as ways to make peace throughout the world."
Hwang said it's exactly the right message to send back to Pyongyang, even after this small step forward.
"I think the Bush administration should just wait and welcome it as a positive sign, but not be overly enthusiastic," Hwang said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.