WASHINGTON - Last month, the chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea wanted to meet privately with his North Korean counterpart, hoping he could persuade Pyongyang to return to talks on eliminating its nuclear weapons program.
But the meeting between U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill and North Korean Vice Premier Kim Kye Gwan on the sidelines of a conference in Tokyo never took place.
Hill's superiors in Washington forbade him from talking directly to the North Koreans, said three U.S. officials, a conference participant and another knowledgeable expert. All requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Hill, the assistant secretary of state, was urged to attend the Tokyo conference after two senior North Korean diplomats agreed in consultations involving two former senior American diplomats that it would be a chance for him to meet privately with Kim, the North Korean envoy, according to a person with knowledge of the discussions who asked to remain anonymous.
This person and a conference participant said Hill saw it as a chance to persuade Kim to rejoin six-nation talks on eliminating North Korea's nuclear arms program. The isolated Stalinist regime has boycotted the talks since the United States took action to halt what it charges are Pyongyang-run money-laundering, drug-running and counterfeiting operations.
Kim met privately with officials from the other nations - Russia, China, South Korea and Japan - involved in the moribund negotiations, said three U.S. officials and the conference participant.
Speaking at a conference in Washington on Tuesday, Hill insisted that "it was my call" not to meet Kim.
"Is someone impeding me from having bilateral contacts? The answer is yes, and it's the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea)," he said. "We are not prepared to sit outside the six-party process and let the DPRK boycott the process and look for favors to get them back."