WASHINGTON -- The United States Monday called on North Korea to take concrete steps toward its denuclearization before reopening the six-party nuclear talks, which have been stalled for more than two years over the North's provocations.
"We have noted public statements about the potential for improved dialogue between North and South," State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said. "Obviously, that can be important.
And we'll see whether the North follows through on that offer for dialogue."
Crowley was discussing the North's proposal made through its New Year's message that calls for dialogue with South Korea to ease tensions and reiterates its commitment to nuclear dismantlement.
The conciliatory gestures follow a series of provocations, including the shelling of a South Korean front-line island and the torpedoeing of a South Korean warship last year to kill 50 people, including two civilians.
North Korea in November also revealed a uranium enrichment plant that it claims is producing fuel for power generation, triggering concerns that the facility could serve as a second way of producing nuclear bombs with highly enriched uranium.
"To some extent, what we're hearing publicly is promising,"
Crowley said. "However, words have to be followed by actions. We'll be looking to see what North Korea actually does, not just what it says."
The spokesman urged the North to take steps to ease tensions, cease provocations and show "a seriousness of purpose in following through on its commitments."
He took note of the North's brinkmanship.
"We did take note of the fact that North Korea, having issued some bellicose language stepped back from that language and did not follow through," he said. "So, we will be watching to see what North Korea does. So there are things that we will be looking for from North Korea that show us that further dialogue would be constructive."
China, host of the six-party talks, has called for their early resumption without preconditions as a way to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula after the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island.
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi will meet with U.S.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton here Wednesday to discuss North Korea and other issues, Crowley said.
"I'm confident that North Korea will be among the topics discussed," he said.
Yang is here to prepare for Chinese President Hu Jintao's state visit to Washington on Jan. 19 for a summit with U.S. President Barack Obama.
"I would say, among the topics to be discussed on Wednesday would be ongoing plans for the state visit by Hu Jintao later this month," he said. "But there's a range of issues that I'm sure they
will discuss during their time together."
Stephen Bosworth, U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, meanwhile, left for Seoul earlier in the day.
"Ambassador Steve Bosworth is on his way to Seoul, and there he will meet with Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan and Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs Ambassador Wi Sung-lac, and then, as part of this trip, will travel on to Beijing and to Tokyo," Crowley said.
The flurry of diplomacy comes amid hopes for a breakthrough in the stalled six-party talks as both Koreas are reaching out to one another for inter-Korean dialogue to ease tensions.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said Monday in his New Year's address that the door for inter-Korean dialogue is still open.
Lee said last week he wants to achieve the North's denuclearization through the six-party talks and inter-Korean dialogue this year, ahead of the North's plans to become a "strong and prosperous state" by 2012, the 100th anniversary of the birth of the North's founder, Kim Il-sung, father of current leader Kim Jong-il.
North Korea has put forth a series of conciliatory gestures through New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who visited Pyongyang last month.
Richardson said that Pyongyang had agreed to allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency back to its Yongbyon nuclear facilities, negotiate the sale of 12,000 spent nuclear fuel rods, establish a military commission consisting of representatives from the two Koreas and the United States, and set up an inter-Korean military hotline to prevent conflicts on the Yellow Sea border.
The reinstatement of the international nuclear monitors is among the preconditions Seoul and Washington have put forth before the reopening of the multilateral nuclear talks, involving the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia.
North Korea expelled IAEA monitors in early 2009 in the wake of U.N. Security Council sanctions for its missile test. Months later, Pyongyang detonated its second nuclear device, after the first detonation in 2006, drawing harsher U.N. sanctions.
Experts are still cautious about any breakthrough in inter-Korean relations and the progress in North Korea's nuclear dismantlement through the resumption of the six-party talks.
"Lee Myung-bak's statement fits very well with North Korea's New Year's message, which also called for inter-Korean dialogue,"
John Feffer, co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, said. "The challenge is, who will make the first move toward reconciliation? It is now up to a third party, China and the United States, to create the circumstances in which the two Koreas can both simultaneously make the first move."
Bruce Klingner, senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, was a bit more pessimistic.
"Contrary to perceptions that both speeches reflect a mutual desire for renewed inter-Korean engagement, there is far greater policy continuity than change in either speech," he said. "Both Pyongyang and Seoul are reiterating their respective two-track policies, balancing highly conditional diplomacy with threats."
Klingner predicted "both a continuation of North Korean provocations and renewed efforts at dialogue during the coming year."
"But as all countries inch their way back to dialogue, it will be important to maintain focus on the talks being a means to achieve an objective rather than merely being an objective in themselves," the scholar said.