By Lee Chi-dong
WASHINGTON, Oct. 9 (Yonhap) -- Apparently, North Korea and the United States are staging a war of nerves over what should come first - dialogue or Pyongyang's initial steps toward denuclearization.
The Obama administration has been unresponsive to the nuclear-armed communist nation's offer of direct talks. U.S. officials remain dubious about the North's intention despite North Korea's statement that it has the ultimate goal of denuclearization.
In a familiar pattern amid Washington's strategic disregard of North Korea, the isolated communist nation's negotiators have turned to an alternative to press for dialogue with the U.S. -- meeting with American academics who are willing to convey Pyongyang's views.
In recent weeks, North Korea's vice foreign ministers dealing with relations with the U.S. -- Kim Kye-gwan and Ri Yong-ho -- held a series of "Track 1.5 or Track 2" sessions in Beijing, Berlin and London.
Those who attended said they came back without feeling that North Korea is prepared to make a denuclearization commitment for now.
"The U.S., as I understand, wants the North Koreans to take these steps even before there's a dialogue. That's not going to happen. I understand the concept. I understand the reasoning, but it's not going to happen," Joel Wit, a former State Department official, told Yonhap News Agency. "They are not willing to accept preconditions for entering into dialogue."
But North Koreans are "willing to take confidence-building steps early in a dialogue in the weapons of mass destruction area," according to Wit, who works as a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.
He said the measures Pyongyang could adopt include a moratorium on nuclear testing.
The U.S. will be able to negotiate other denuclearization-related steps as well through face-to-face talks with North Koreans, added Wit, who sat together with North Korea's nuclear envoy, Ri Yong-ho, in Berlin in late September.
Evans Revere, former principal deputy assistant secretary of state, also said he did not hear anything in his recent Beijing meeting with top North Korean officials that suggests Pyongyang is willing to take steps toward denuclearization before the resumption of talks with Washington.
"I think North Korea is interested in dialogue. I think China has been pressing Pyongyang quite hard, quite vigorously, to return to the negotiating table," he said in a phone interview with Yonhap's 24-hour television news arm, News Y.
However, North Korea has gone in quite the opposite direction of denuclearization, he pointed out.
"So, if we are going to get these talks restarted, we need to know without a shadow of a doubt that North Korea is actually interested in denuclearization," Revere stressed, "I don't think the United State is going to change that fundamental position."
Revere said he got impression that China is quite serious about reviving the six-way talks also involving South Korea, Japan and Russia.
China recently published a list of dual-use items to be banned from export to North Korea that could be used for its nuclear weapons program.
It may add some pressure on the Obama administration.
Revere did not rule out the possibility of Washington agreeing to having "exploratory talks" with Pyongyang before mulling over full-scale dialogue.
"I think it is something worth considering," he said, if North Koreans somehow convey to the U.S. some kind of a message that indicates that it is prepared to take "substantial and definitive" steps toward denuclearization.
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