The key players in international efforts to curb North Korea's nuclear ambitions are picking up the pace in what has become a protracted ritual of talking about talks and discussing how to entice the North's recalcitrant government back into negotiations.
But the communist North dug in yesterday, saying its UN diplomats met US officials in New York on Tuesday and again on Friday, but concluded that Pyongyang should hold off on talks until a new US administration under President George W. Bush changes Washington's "hostile" policy toward Pyongyang.
"Our analysis of the results of the contact in New York prompts us to judge that the US side showed no willingness to change its policy toward us and intends to use the six-party talks as a leverage for forcing us to dismantle all our nuclear programs, including the nuclear development for a peaceful purpose, first,'' the North Korean spokesman was quoted as saying by the official news agency, KCNA.
Three rounds of six-nation talks aimed at persuading the North to halt weapons development have taken place since last year, but without a breakthrough. North Korea boycotted a fourth round scheduled for September, and analysts believed it was holding out for a change in the White House.
North Korea wants to maintain nuclear facilities for power generation and medical and agricultural research, but says it will abandon its nuclear weapons development if the US provides economic compensation and security guarantees. Washington has demanded an immediate dismantling of all the North's nuclear activities.
Since Bush's November re-election, diplomacy has resumed.
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Dai Bingguo met in Washington with outgoing US Secretary of State Colin Powell on Thursday, with the nuclear issue a key topic.
Before Dai's trip, China sent its ambassador for the nuclear dispute, Ning Fukui, to North Korea to sound out the North on the issue.
South Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Lee Soo-hyuck arrived in Washington on Thursday, while President Roh Moo-hyun, on a visit to London, urged that the "six-party talks ... be reconvened as soon as possible."
Yesterday, North Korea said it was not in a hurry.
"As the second Bush administration has not yet emerged, we would like to wait a bit longer to follow with patience what a policy it will shape," the North Korean spokesman said.
The US wants the fourth round of talks to begin before February.
"The North Koreans hold the key to when the talks will take place," said Lee Kyo-duk, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Korea Institute for National Unification. "But they will wait until Bush completes his lineups for his second-term administration to have a clear picture of who they will have to deal with."
Paek Sung-joo, chief North Korea analyst at Seoul's Korea Institute for Defense Analysis, said talks would likely resume in the first quarter of next year, but probably only on the condition that Washington promises to resume free fuel oil shipments to the energy-starved North.
The US and its allies stopped those shipments after Washington accused North Korea in 2002 of running a clandestine nuclear program. North Korea retaliated by withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and restarting its nuclear facilities frozen under a 1994 deal.