"It's not an issue between North Korea and the United States. It's a regional issue," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said. "And it's an issue that impacts all of its neighbors."
North Korea has plenty of opportunity to talk to the United States within six-party talks, McClellan said.
In an interview with a South Korean newspaper Friday, North Korea's U.N. envoy demanded bilateral talks with the United States.
"We will return to the six-nation talks when we see a reason to do so and the conditions are ripe," Han Sung Ryol told Seoul's Hankyoreh newspaper in an interview published Friday. "If the United States moves to have direct dialogue with us, we can take that as a signal that the United States is changing its hostile policy toward us."
Han's suggestion came as the 2-year-old standoff over North Korea's nuclear weapons programs plummeted to a new low.
North Korea sees its nuclear programs as a way of ensuring the survival of leader Kim Jong Il's regime. In return for giving up its nuclear ambitions, it seeks massive aid, diplomatic recognition, an end to economic sanctions, and a nonaggression treaty with the United States.
North Korea's long-running strategy has been to try to engage the United States in bilateral talks, believing such meetings would boost the isolated country's international status and help it win bigger concessions.
U.S. officials believe North Korea may have from four to two dozen nuclear devices, depending on the assumptions used about the bombs' designs.
The United States, South Korea, China, Japan and Russia have struggled to arrange a fourth round of talks aimed at persuading Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons programs. The last round was held in June. A South Korean delegation is due in Washington on Monday for previously scheduled strategic talks and a Japanese group will arrive for consultations here later in the week.
McClellan noted that North Korea violated the 1994 Agreed Framework, a bilateral pact negotiated with the United States that froze Pyongyang's nuclear facilities in return for energy aid. That deal collapsed in late 2002 when U.S. officials accused the North of violating the accord by pursuing a secret nuclear program. The North denied the charge, withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and restarted its frozen nuclear facilities.
"North Korea violated that Agreed Framework and continued to pursue nuclear weapons," McClellan said. "We believe the six-party talks are the way to resolve this in a peaceful and diplomatic way."
"I think all countries in the region are saying to North Korea, that they need to come back to the talks so that we can talk about the proposal that we put on the table at the last round of talks," the spokesman said. "That proposal addresses the concerns of all parties and it provides the way forward for resolving this matter."
Consultations are already under way with China, a senior U.S. official said.
The United States will keep pushing for six-party talks and is urging its negotiating partners not to get rattled, said this official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Governments around the world have expressed concern over North Korea's nuclear statement and urged it to return to talks. But North Korea says it will not do so as long as Washington maintains its "hostile" policy toward the North.
"We have no other option but to regard the United States' refusal to have direct dialogue with us as an intention not to recognize us and to eliminate our system," said Han.
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton forged a bilateral deal in 1994 obligating North Korea to freeze its nuclear activities in return for oil and other aid.
But officials in the Bush administration say the old deal was a failure that should not be repeated because North Korea flouted it by running a secret uranium-enrichment program.
They champion a new six-nation multilateral deal that could bind the North with commitments to China and Russia. China's aid and trade keep North Korea's economy from collapsing.
When asked whether the North's announcement would cause friction with Beijing, Han said his country has "always made our decisions independently based on our own judgment and on our own national interest."
"We are not affected by outside countries' pressure, mediation and persuasion. In fact, we believe that China will help persuade the United States to abandon its hostile policy toward us," he said in the interview.