The US and North Korea held a rare meeting in New York hoping to kick-start stalled six-nation talks on Pyongyang's nuclear arms program, US officials said.
However Japanese media yesterday quoted an anonymous source in Washington saying North Korea had given no clear response to US officials when they requested at Monday's meeting that Pyongyang return immediately to the talks.
US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the meeting arose out of "procedural contacts." He would not give any further details.
An official, who asked not to be identified, confirmed that the North Koreans had made the request a few days ago to reopen the so-called "New York channel" via Pyongyang's UN mission.
The official said Joseph DiTrani, US special envoy to the six-party negotiations, and Jim Foster, head of the State Department's Office of Korean Affairs, met with Pyongyang's UN ambassador and his deputy.
It was the second time in less than a month that the administration of US President George W. Bush, which has largely spurned direct talks with North Korea, had used the New York channel.
The new contacts came a year after the breakdown of negotiations launched by the US, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia in an effort to wean the North Koreans off nuclear weapons.
DiTrani and Foster met May 13 with UN ambassador Pak Gil-yon and his deputy Han Song-ryol, reportedly to reassure North Korea the US considered it a sovereign nation and would not attack it.
The White House would not confirm the reported reassurance and said only the channel was used to reiterate the standard US message that the North Koreans had to return to the six-party talks without conditions.
Before Monday's meeting, White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters they were hopeful North Korea would respond soon to appeals for an early resumption of the negotiations.
He stressed that the New York channel "is used simply to communicate messages. It's not used to negotiate by any means."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was in Florida attending a meeting of the Organization of American States, also played down the New York talks as "a working-level contact."
"We'll use it whenever necessary. But we do not believe in bilateral negotiations with the North Koreans," she told CNN's Spanish network. "We meet with the North Koreans in the context of the six-party talks. "We believe that this is the best way to make certain that North Korea gets a consistent and coherent message from all of the members of the neighborhood that their nuclear-weapons program simply has to go."
US officials have been frustrated at Pyongyang's refusal to return to the bargaining table. They are also worried by speculation the insular Asian state was boosting its nuclear arsenal and perhaps preparing for its first test.
The Bush administration, which has foresworn direct talks in favor of the multi-party approach to North Korea, has been sending out mixed signals on whether it was readying tougher action.
A senior US defense official said on Sunday that Washington would likely decide in weeks whether to take the matter before the UN. But Rice said things were not likely to move so fast.
US Vice President Dick Cheney last week called North Korean leader Kim Jong-il an "irresponsible" leader who ran a police state, prompting Pyongyang to call Bush's number-two a "blood-thirsty beast."