The US ambassador to Seoul yesterday urged North Korea to return unconditionally to six-way disarmament talks and to get out of the "nuclear business" this year.
"The US is ready to return to the table without attaching any new conditions, and we expect North Korea to do the same," US ambassador Alexander Vershbow said.
Pyongyang has set the lifting of US financial sanctions on the Stalinist state as a precondition for resuming the talks, a demand flatly rejected by Washington.
Vershbow said North Korean leaders must "end their country's self-imposed isolation by getting out of the nuclear business" this year.
"If they do, my government is ready to fulfill its commitments ... including negotiating a permanent peace regime for the Korean Peninsula and beginning the process of normalizing relations with Pyongyang," he said in a speech.
During the six-way talks in September, North Korea agreed to dismantle its nuclear weapons program in exchange for diplomatic and economic benefits and security guarantees.
In November, however, Pyongyang said US sanctions were an obstacle to the negotiations involving the US, North and South Korea, China, Russia and Japan.
North Korea reiterated on Tuesday that it would not return to the six-party talks unless Washington lifted the sanctions.
In response, White House spokesman Scott McClellan reaffirmed that the US would not bend on the issue, calling the North's demand "another in a ... long list of pretext [sic] for delay" in the talks.
US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack also said the sanctions against North Korea were not linked to nuclear disarmament.
In September, the US Treasury told US financial institutions to cut all ties with a Macau bank, Banco Delta Asia, which it accused of being a willing front for North Korean counterfeiting.
A month later the US blacklisted eight North Korean companies allegedly involved in the spread of weapons of mass destruction.
Rodong Sinmun, mouthpiece of the North's ruling Communist Party, urged the US to unblock talks by removing the sanctions.
Vershbow, who took office here in October after serving in Europe and Russia, said the six-way talks could spark the creation of a new regional security bloc in Northeast Asia, like NATO.
"With progress on the nuclear issue, the six-party talks could form the starting point for a multilateral security consultative mechanism to help build trust and address the common security problems confronting the states of the Northeast Asian region," he said.