Former UN envoy Bill Richardson holds more rare meetings on Thursday with a delegation from Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), which he said is pushing for one-on-one talks with the United States.
This file photo taken on August 4, 2009 and released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il (R) posing with former US president Bill Clinton (L) in Pyongyang. (AFP Photo)
Long-time US policy has been to deny DPRK bilateral talks and only discuss the hermit state's nuclear program in a six-nation forum consisting of the two Koreas, China, Russia, the United States and Japan.
Richardson said he was hearing from the DPRK delegation that Pyongyang believed its decision earlier this month to release two US reporters to former president Bill Clinton merited a change of heart from Washington.
"We had productive talks," he said half-way through Wednesday's discussions. "I got a sense that temperatures have really cooled down since President Clinton's visit.
"DPRK obviously used the journalists as a bargaining chip and now they want a gesture in return. What I believe they want in return is, all right, the US is now ready to talk to us directly."
Pyongyang abandoned six-party talks and vowed to restart its plutonium-producing program in April after a censure from the UN Security Council for testing a long-range rocket. It went on to stage its second nuclear test on May 25.
"The delegation indicated that DPRK is ready for a new dialogue with the United States regarding the nuclear issue," Richardson said Wednesday.
"The question is whether to proceed with face-to-face bilateral talks, as DPRK prefers, or to utilize the six-party framework that the United States has advocated. TDPRK clearly want bilateral talks and not the six-party framework."
Richardson, who met with DPRK delegates Kim Myong-Gil and Paek Jong-Ho at his sprawling hacienda overlooking Santa Fe, was upbeat despite US intransigence in the past on the matter of face-to-face talks.
"I detected for the first time... a lessening of tension, some positive vibrations.
"They're leaving it up to the US on who should they talk to. They didn't place any conditions, and that's good news," he said.
The White House stated clearly that the DPRK mission to New Mexico had not come at the behest of the Obama administration.
State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said no message had been passed to Richardson to give to DPRK and reiterated Washington's longstanding policy on DPRK.
"Our goal is very simple and very clear. Our goal is the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. And, of course, we want to see progress toward that."
Clinton's historic August 4 meeting with reclusive DPRK leader Kim Jong-Il was the highest-level contact in a decade and brought to an end months of simmering tension and escalating rhetoric.
In another possible sign of a change of attitude in Pyongyang, the North has warmed in recent days to Republic of Korea (RoK) after months of hostility, making a surprise offer to relaunch cross-border tours and allow reunions of divided families.
The two Koreas remain technically at war since their 1950-53 conflict ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty.
More than 600,000 RoK soldiers, backed by 28,500 US troops, are deployed in the southern part of the peninsula, confronting a potential threat from the North's 1.1 million-strong military.
Kim and Paek, delegates from DPRK mission to the United Nations, were granted special permission to visit Richardson as ordinarily they cannot go beyond a 25-mile (40-kilometer) radius of New York City.
The pair, who enjoyed dinner with Richardson on Tuesday evening, will meet briefly with the governor again on Thursday after several hours of discussion on the first day of talks, aides said.
Richardson traveled twice to DPRK in the 1990s to secure the release of US prisoners and was last there in April 2007 to bring back the remains of American servicemen killed during the Korean War.
A veteran Democratic politician, Richardson served as US ambassador to the United Nations and energy secretary under Clinton. The prominent Hispanic politician also made a failed bid for the presidency in 2008.