U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates on Friday held out the possibility of a resumption of six-party talks if North Korea ceases provocations and meets its obligations, but said there was no sign of it changing its ways.
Gates was wrapping up a five-day visit to Northeast Asia with talks in Seoul to discuss ways to respond to Pyongyang's belligerence last year which drove tensions to their highest level in years.
With regards to next steps on North Korea, diplomatic engagement is possible, starting with direct engagement between the DPRK and the South, he told reporters in Seoul, referring to the North Korea by its acronym.
Washington says North-South dialogue is a prerequisite to a resumption of six-party talks involving the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia. Pyongyang walked out of the aid-for-disarmament talks in 2009, pronouncing them dead.
When or if North Korea's actions show cause to believe that negotiations can be productive and conducted in good faith, then we could see a return to the six-party talks, Gates said. But the DPRK leadership must stop these dangerous provocations and take concrete steps to show that they will begin meeting their international obligations.
The North has appealed almost daily for talks since the start of the year, but Gates has called on Pyongyang to make concrete gestures that it is serious about negotiations.
Seoul has dismissed Pyongyang's peace overtures as insincere and propaganda. It has demanded talks focused on what it says was North Korea's sinking of one of its warships in March, which killed 46 sailors, and its attack on one of its islands in November, which killed four people.
North Korea said it was South Korean provocation, a live-fire drill from the island of Yeonpyeong into disputed waters, that prompted its retaliation. It has denied responsibility for the sinking of the naval vessel.
Both the United States and South Korea say the North must also follow through on its pledges to denuclearise, and say its revelations of a uranium enrichment programme -- which gives it a second route to make nuclear bomb -- show it is insincere.
China said on Friday that six-party talks were more suitable than the U.N. Security Council for solving the nuclear standoff but that it was still not very clear on the state of North Korea's claimed uranium enrichment programme.
About the so-called uranium enrichment activities by North Korea that you've raised, it's my understanding that Chinese people have not seen the site, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai said at a forum hosted by China's foreign ministry in Beijing.
It's some American experts who have seen the site, but even they did not see clearly... So this matter is still not very clear.
Gates said earlier in Tokyo that despite the best efforts of South Korea and the international community the character and priorities of the North Korean regime have sadly not changed.
Gates repeated his concerns about the North Korea threat reaching far beyond the peninsula, highlighting proliferation worries about its nuclear and missile programmes.
He said that while North Korea's ability to launch a conventional ground invasion is much degraded from even a decade or so ago ... in other respects it has grown more lethal and destabilising.
Gates earlier this week warned that Pyongyang was becoming a direct threat to the United States and could develop inter-continental ballistic missiles within five years.