South Korea said today it would support direct talks between the United States and North Korea so long as they were aimed at advancing multilateral negotiations on ending Pyongyang's nuclear programmes.
The US State Department had said yesterday that it was prepared to hold such talks to try to coax North Korea back to the six-party talks involving the two Koreas, China, the United States, Japan and Russia.
Previously, US officials had sent mixed signals about direct meetings, at times saying Pyongyang must first commit to resume the multilateral discussions and at others saying bilateral talks could only occur "in the context" of the multilateral discussions.
"We are prepared to enter into a bilateral discussion with North Korea," State Department spokesman PJ Crowley told reporters yesterday.
The department denied changing its policy, saying any bilateral meeting would be to bring Pyongyang back to multilateral talks.
"When it'll happen, where it'll happen, we'll have to wait and see," Crowley added. "We've made no decisions at this point, other than just to say we are prepared for a bilateral talk, if that will help advance the six-party process."
In Seoul, foreign ministry spokesman Moon Tae-young said today: "We have the same position on the issue. South Korea will not oppose US-North Korea bilateral talks if they are held to advance the six-party talks to resolve the North Korea nuclear issue."
North Korea agreed in September 2005 to abandon its nuclear programmes in an aid-for-disarmament agreement hammered out among the six parties.
The process has unfolded in fits and starts, with North Korea taking some steps to disable its nuclear facilities but also testing a nuclear device in 2006 and again in May, leading the others to question its commitment to the deal.
The six-party talks broke down at the end of last year, with the North declaring the process "dead". The Obama administration is searching for a way to revive them.
"The bilateral talks will signify a breakthrough (in) the standstill six-party negotiations," Dongkuk University professor of North Korea studies Koh Yu-hwan told Reuters.
"Washington came to the decision on the belief that any further ignoring of the issue would only give time for North Korea to develop more nuclear weapons."
US officials believe the multilateral talks have the best chance of persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions chiefly because their host, China, has greater influence over North Korea than does the United States.
The State Department's Crowley said it was unlikely bilateral talks would take place before the UN General Assembly this month. He declined to say whether US special envoy Stephen Bosworth might accept the North's invitation to visit Pyongyang.