Diplomacy aimed at bringing North Korea to the negotiating table even as Pyongyang escalates its harsh rhetoric in the standoff over its nuclear arms ambitions.
On the surface, diplomacy seems stalled after North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam-sun decided not to go to next week's Asia-Pacific security summit in Phnom Penh, due to be attended by US Secretary of State Colin Powell.
But sources in Tokyo with close ties to the reclusive communist state said US envoy Jack Pritchard held secret talks with North Korean representatives at the UN last week.
"At the meeting in New York, Pritchard sounded out [Pyongyang] about five-nation talks that would include Japan and South Korea," one of the sources said.
In what could be a move to let Pyongyang save face, Pritchard floated the idea of creating an opportunity for North Korean negotiators to hold one-on-one talks with US counterparts at the same time as the five-way gathering, another source said.
North Korea has not yet responded, the sources said.
The US wants to hold multilateral talks with the North, but Pyongyang has insisted on bilateral negotiations.
North Korea appeared to soften its stance recently, however, when it said it would agree to US demands for multilateral talks if Pyongyang and Washington held bilateral talks first.
The crisis on the Korean Peninsula emerged last year when US officials said Pyongyang had admitted to pursuing a secret nuclear weapons program in violation of a 1994 pact.
US officials then said North Korea had revealed at talks in April in Beijing that it already had nuclear weapons.
Diplomats are also using other routes to try to restart stalled official talks.
North Korea has called on Russia to mediate a fresh round of three-way talks while the US is urging North Korea through China to agree to five-way talks. Both Russia and China have close relations with Pyongyang.
The sources with ties to Pyongyang said Pritchard had suggested to the North Koreans in New York that Washington could offer "some kind" of aid if the North agreed to five-way talks.
Rhetoric, however, has heated up ahead of talks that started in Hawaii yesterday among diplomats from the US, Japan and South Korea that were aimed at thrashing out their policies on North Korea.