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SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea rebuked the United States on Friday over delays in setting bilateral talks, saying it had doubts whether Washington was serious about sending its special envoy to Pyongyang.
The communist state's official Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) quoted a foreign ministry spokesman as expressing alarm at media reports that U.S. officials were divided over whether to send envoy Jack Pritchard to North Korea.
The spokesman said Pyongyang had agreed in April to accept a visit by Pritchard for what would be the first substantive dialogue with North Korea under the administration of George W. Bush, who had labeled the North part of an "axis of evil".
The White House said on April 30 that it was making arrangements to resume talks, expected to centre on North Korea's missile and nuclear programmes, but there has been no word on whether Washington would send Pritchard to Pyongyang.
On Tuesday, a State Department statement said U.S., South Korean and Japanese delegations would hold regular talks in San Francisco June 17-18 but shed no light on plans for Pritchard.
On Friday, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said he had no news on whether Pritchard would go to North Korea.
"We're considering how to approach the discussions, and we expect to get back to the North Koreans shortly on their offer," the spokesman added, speaking at a daily briefing.
U.S. media have put the delay down to a split over how to proceed within the Bush administration, which adopted a policy in June 2001 of pursuing talks without preconditions.
"The attitude taken by the U.S. side as regards Pritchard's Pyongyang visit, however, only increases the DPRK's doubt about its proposal for the restart of the dialogue," the spokesman said.
DPRK is the acronym for North Korea's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
"A true dialogue is possible only when the U.S. respects its dialogue partner and deals with it on an equal footing," the spokesman added.
The U.S. call for talks with North Korea without preconditions has been rebuffed by a wary Pyongyang. The stalemate in U.S.-North Korean ties has had a chilling effect on South Korea's relations with the North.
The first public word of North Korea's willingness to receive Pritchard came in early April, when South Korean Presidential envoy Lim Dong-won held talks in Pyongyang with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and reported he wanted to resume contacts with the United States.
Hopes for resumed North-South exchanges raised by Lim's visit were dampened in early May, when North Korea canceled economic talks scheduled to discuss joint projects, including reconnecting railroad links on the divided peninsula.
The previous meeting of the so-called Trilateral Coordination and Oversight Group (TCOG), grouping the U.S., Japan and South Korea, was held in Tokyo in April, when the three allies agreed to continue efforts to engage North Korea in dialogue.
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