U.S. and North Korean emissaries met Wednesday to lay the groundwork for high-level direct contacts aimed at defusing a crisis over Pyongyang's nuclear program and its decision to withdraw from a key nuclear arms treaty.
"The United States and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea political counselors met in Beijing on May 5 for the 32nd time," State Department spokesman Joe Snyder told reporters.
Asked about the possibility of future, higher-level talks on the nuclear question, he said:
"The United States is willing to meet with North Korea to help resolve the current situation involving actions North Korea has taken in the nuclear area."
Snyder refused to provide any details of the Wednesday talks in Beijing, which were prompted by international alarm over North Korea's decision to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
He also refused to discuss arrangements for more meetings.
China had urged high-level contacts between Washington and Pyongyang, and there are indications they could involve U.S. Undersecretary of State Peter Tarnoff.
But Washington insisted first on meeting at the level of political counselors at the U.S. and North Korean embassies in China's capital, where in recent years the two governments have held a series of meetings to discuss various concerns.
Tarnoff briefly spoke about this matter at the State Department Tuesday with China's new ambassador to the United States, Li Daoyu.
The last such high-level contact involved Tarnoff's predecessor, then-Undersecretary of State Arnold Kanter, who met his North Korean counterpart in New York in January, 1992.
U.S. officials said that after the political counselors met, Washington would decide whether to follow through with a higher-level contact that Pyongyang is seen as keen to have.
The United States and Communist North Korea do not have formal diplomatic relations.
"The North Koreans know the items of concern to us are related principally to their nuclear program," one official said in an interview.
He stressed that "we want to be very deliberate about this (deciding to hold higher-level contacts) and see if they have anything by way of substance to report to us."