US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun rejected on Wednesday reports that he was seeking to meet North Korean officials during a visit to South Korea this week but reiterated that the United States is open to resuming talks.
The US point man for North Korea, Biegun was in Seoul for meetings with South Korean officials, overshadowed by North Korea's insistence that it has no intention of returning to denuclearisation negotiations as long as the United States clings to "hostile policies".
Biegun briefly met South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha before holding formal talks with Vice Foreign Minister Cho Sei-young and chief nuclear negotiator Lee Do-hoon.
The discussions covered a range of issues, including responses to the novel coronavirus and the sharing of the costs of the US military deployment in South Korea, but North Korea dominated the agenda, South Korean officials said.
Biegun's visit had sparked speculation about a last-ditch effort to revive the North Korea talks ahead of the US presidential election in November, but he played down expectations for new meetings.
"Let me absolutely be clear, we did not request a visit," Biegun told a news conference after meeting Lee.
"This visit this week is to meet with our close friends and allies, the South Koreans."
But Biegun said he was ready to resume talks at any time the North Koreans designate.
"We look forward to continuing our work for a peaceful outcome of the Korean peninsula, I believe this is very much possible," he said, noting that US President Donald Trump had given his full support.
Biegun reiterated that the United States was willing to be flexible and reach a "balanced agreement" with North Korea, should it decide to return to talks, Lee said.
Biegun is also likely to meet Suh Hoon, Moon's new national security adviser who, as spy chief, was instrumental in facilitating summits between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a South Korean official said.
Old way of thinking
Talks with North Korea have since stalled, and its officials, including a top diplomat Biegun met in negotiations, Choe Son Hui, say they have no intention of sitting down with the United States.
Biegun, in a separate statement released by the US Embassy, said Choe was "locked in an old way of thinking, focused on only the negatives and what is impossible, rather than thinking creatively about what is possible".
Biegun said earlier he did not focus on the North's statements but instead was guided by the "vision" outlined by Trump and Kim at their meetings.
The two leaders met for the first time in 2018 in Singapore, raising hopes for a negotiated end to North Korea's nuclear programme. But their second summit, in 2019 in Vietnam, and subsequent working-level negotiations fell apart.
Trump said on Tuesday he was open to another meeting with Kim and thought it might be helpful, Voice of America reported, citing a transcript of an interview Trump gave to Gray Television, due to be aired on Sunday.
Kim has been maintaining a low profile in recent months, making far fewer public appearances than usual, according to analysts who monitor his movements.
On Wednesday, North Korean state media reported Kim had marked the anniversary of the death of his grandfather, North Korea's founding leader Kim Il Sung, by visiting his mausoleum in Pyongyang.
Biegun has previously played down the likelihood of another summit between Trump and Kim, saying the coronavirus made that unlikely before the election.
North Korea's rejection of new talks means Biegun's visit is more likely to focus on coordination between the two allies, rather than seizing some opening for diplomacy, said John Delury, a North Korea expert at Yonsei University in Seoul.
"I don't see signals from North Korea that they are looking for engagement," he said.