WASHINGTON -- The United States met yesterday with North Korea on halting its nuclear weapons program and withdrew a threat to try to punish the North Koreans soon with United Nations sanctions.
The meeting was requested by North Korea and held in New York, where the two sides had last met May 13, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
The US aim is to resume six-nation negotiations -- the talks involve North and South Korea, the United States, Japan, China, and Russia after a nearly yearlong impasse. McCormack and other Bush administration officials did not say whether the talks in New York made progress in that direction. North Korea also had no comment.
But in Tokyo, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said he believed North Korea wanted to return to the negotiations and resolve an international standoff regarding its nuclear program.
''I believe that North Korea really does want somehow to hold six-party talks and resolve the matter," the Kyodo news agency quoted Koizumi as telling reporters during a visit to the 2005 World Expo in Aichi.
During the May 13 meeting, US diplomats had urged the North Koreans to return to the negotiations. ''We are hopeful that North Korea will be responding soon," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said yesterday. ''We continue to urge North Korea to return to the six-party talks at an early date without preconditions."
State Department envoy Joseph DiTrani and James Foster, who is in charge of the department's office of Korean affairs, met with North Korean officials. In a conciliatory move, meanwhile, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said in Bangkok, Thailand, that no deadline had been set to bring the dispute to the UN Security Council.
Rumsfeld's statement nullified one by a senior defense official traveling with him that there could be a decision on going to the UN within weeks.
US chances of punishing North Korea with economic or political sanctions would not be great, in any event, since China, which opposes sanctions generally, could veto a US motion.
The insular North Korean government, meanwhile, has denounced sanctions as tantamount to a declaration of war.
Word that the two sides had been in touch did not soften North Korean rhetoric. The state-run Korean Central News Agency excoriated the United States in several commentaries, saying the nuclear standoff cannot be defused ''as long as the US clings only to its anachronistic hostile policy toward the DPRK."
Rumsfeld said news reports that the United States was setting a deadline on UN action were ''incorrect and mischievous."
In the meantime, before Rumsfeld stepped in, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice disagreed with the anonymous Pentagon official's statement that action in the UN could be imminent.
''I think the idea that within weeks we are going to decide one way or another is a little forward-leaning," Rice said on her way to a meeting of the Organization of American States in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. ''I don't put timelines on things, and I think the president, he doesn't put timelines on issues."