SEOUL/WASHINGTON North Korea called on Wednesday for unconditional talks with the South but the United States suggested it must first stop provoking its neighbor, recommit to a 2005 nuclear pact and take responsibility for recent attacks.
It was uncertain whether the South would heed the North's call less than two months after the North Korean military on November 23 bombarded a South Korean island off disputed waters, killing four people.
The artillery fire, and the March 2010 sinking of a South Korean corvette blamed on the North despite its denials, have raised tensions in Asia and added pressure to try to resume talks with the North on curbing its nuclear programs.
"We demand unconditional talks between responsible authorities (of the South and the North)," the North's KCNA news agency quoted a statement, which, in an unusual step, was issued collectively by the North's government, the ruling Workers' Party of Korea and other organizations.
"We are prepared to meet with anyone regardless of the past if it is someone who is willing to go hand-on-hand with us to the future," it added.
It further proposed "discontinuing heaping slander and calumnies on each other and refraining from any act of provoking each other in order to create an atmosphere of improving inter-Korean ties."
While the North's statement seemed conciliatory, the United States made clear it first wanted Pyongyang to take action.
"We're open to dialogue but it's not just for North Korea to say 'OK, fine we'll come talk'," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters after the U.S. and Chinese foreign ministers met in Washington.
"There are things that North Korea has to show both South Korea and the United States that it is prepared to have a sustained and constructive dialogue," Crowley said.
"Committing itself that there will be no further provocations certainly would be one step, demonstrating that it is prepared to move forward on its commitments under the 2005 joint statement would be another step," he added.
Under that pact, North Korea pledged to abandon its nuclear programs but the country's reclusive and often unpredictable leaders have made such commitments in the past in agreements that have subsequently unraveled.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi of China discussed the issue among others during a two-hour meeting to prepare for Chinese President Hu Jintao's January 19 state visit to Washington.
The United States has long sought China's help to persuade North Korea, which has twice conducted nuclear tests, to give up its nuclear programs.
The U.S. envoy for North Korea policy, Stephen Bosworth, met South Korean officials in Seoul before heading to China. Washington hopes talks on dismantling North Korea's nuclear work can start soon, though a breakthrough may prove elusive.
Tension on the Korean peninsula rose to its highest levels since the 1950-53 Korean War after last year's sinking of a Southern ship killed 46 sailors, the exchange of artillery fire around the South's island, revelations of fresh nuclear activity by the North and threats of war.
President Barack Obama's national security adviser met China's foreign minister Tuesday in Washington and stressed the need to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons work and "avoid destabilizing behavior," the White House said.
In Seoul, U.S. envoy Bosworth met South Korea's foreign minister and nuclear negotiator. Bosworth does not appear to be in the region to unveil a U.S. proposal to get the North back to talks, but said he was collecting views from all sides.
Consultations are likely to focus on whether to restart the so-called six-party disarmament-for-aid talks involving the United States, the two Koreas, Japan, China and Russia.
Asked whether the United States was putting pressure on Seoul, Bosworth said: "Never."
He offered no further comments, saying he was due in China later Wednesday and would be in Japan Thursday.
Speaking after his meeting with Bosworth, South Korea's foreign minister sounded a cautious note about whether the six-party talks could restart, calling them a "useful negotiating tool" for disarming North Korea.
"But the right conditions, including North-South dialogue, are needed for there to be real progress," Kim Sung-Hwan was quoted as saying by the Yonhap news agency.
"It depends on the North's behavior whether it will choose path of conflict or peace."
(Additional reporting by Jack Kim in Seoul and Andrew Quinn in Washington; Editing by Philip Barbara and Sandra Maler)