WASHINGTON — In the latest in a string of conciliatory moves, the North Korean government sent a delegation to meet Wednesday with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who said the isolated country was "now prepared to have a dialogue with us" after months of aggressive nuclear testing that had alarmed the international community.
The visit to the governor's mansion in Santa Fe, N.M., came two weeks after North Korea's Stalinist government released two detained American journalists in response to a dramatic mission by former president Bill Clinton. The North has also made gestures toward South Korea, including the release last week of an engineer it had detained for four months.
A senior Obama administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment, said that "the likelihood for some form of re-engagement is somewhat greater" because of North Korea's recent actions. But U.S. officials emphasized that North Korea still had to agree to return to stalled multiparty talks on its nuclear program.
"Our goals have not changed as it relates to North Korea, largely because the responsibilities of North Korea have not changed," said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, referring to agreements that the North has signed pledging to end its nuclear weapons program.
Richardson's office said the North Korean delegation, made up of diplomats from the country's mission to the United Nations, had asked for the Santa Fe meeting. Richardson, a Democrat, is a former U.N. ambassador who has traveled three times to North Korea to help win the release of detained Americans and retrieve the remains of Korean War dead.
Richardson told CNN he was not negotiating on behalf of the Obama administration, but said he was "sort of a liaison." His spokesman, Gilbert Gallegos, said the governor had been in "regular contact" with the State Department but was not bearing any U.S. government message.
The State Department learned weeks ago of the North Koreans' plans to visit New Mexico, since the diplomats are required to secure permission to travel beyond a 25-mile radius around New York.
Richardson told MSNBC after a first round of meetings Wednesday morning that "the temperature has really cooled down" in the bilateral relationship since Clinton's visit to Pyongyang. The North Koreans, he said, "are now prepared to have a dialogue with us."
However, Richardson said, the North Koreans want direct meetings with the U.S. government. "They think the six-party talks are not working, and they don't want to return to that."
The Obama administration has insisted that negotiations on North Korea's nuclear program occur in the context of a six-party framework that includes Japan, China, Russia and South Korea.
Richardson said the North Koreans told him that "everything would be on the table" in negotiations. But the governor said he did not get any assurances that the North Koreans would scale back their nuclear program.
"They wouldn't bring that up with me. This is up to the two governments," Richardson told the CNN program "The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer." He said he would convey to the Obama administration whatever the North Koreans tell him during the two days of planned talks.
Richardson also said the North Koreans felt they were owed a concession by the U.S. government. "They feel ... that by giving us the two American journalists, that they've made an important gesture. And now they're saying the ball's in our court," he told CNN.
State Department spokesman Ian Kelly, however, said, "The ball is very, very much in the North Korean court right now."
"I'm just not going to stand here and say that this is somehow an indication that they're going to return" to nuclear talks, Kelly said. "They just need to tell us they're going to return."
North Korea has been one of the thorniest foreign-policy problems facing the Obama administration. It took office hoping to relaunch multiparty nuclear negotiations, but North Korea has balked, instead conducting two underground nuclear tests and a series of missile test launches. The United Nations imposed new sanctions on the country in July.
North Korea's belligerence has faded notably in recent weeks. U.S. officials and analysts said the gestures could reflect the bite of sanctions or North Korea's desire to pull back from the brink.
Victor Cha, who advised President George W. Bush on North Korea, said the country's recent actions — particularly the release of the two U.S. journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee — could lead to negotiations.
"No American nuclear negotiator could have gone and started talking to the North Koreans while these two women were in North Korea," said Cha, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
However, he added, "The bottom line is still the same problem, which is: Are they willing to give up their nuclear weapons?"
Staff writer Anne Kornblut in Washington and correspondent Blaine Harden in Tokyo contributed to this report.