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By Burton Frierson
NEW YORK (Reuters) - North Korea appears to be more open to resuming six-nation talks on its nuclear program, U.S. academics and former officials said on Friday after meeting Ri Gun, Pyongyang's second-ranking nuclear negotiator.
No current State Department officials were at the meeting, but Ri led a North Korean delegation that held discussions the past week in New York and California with Sung Kim, U.S. special envoy to disarmament talks.
"We have heard and read comments coming from the DPRK (North Korea) side in various ways that suggest that there has been an uptick in North Korean interest in resuming bilateral and even multilateral dialogue," Evans Revere, president of the Korea Society and a former State Department official, told a news conference.
"And I think it is a fair general characterization of the discussions that took place today to say that we heard those themes, that interest expressed fairly clearly during the course of our meetings."
Ri was tight-lipped after the meeting and did not take part in the news conference. None of the participants at Friday's meetings hinted at an immediate breakthrough.
The rare contacts during Ri's visit were seen as a possible step towards a formal U.S.-North Korea meeting that could lead to a resumption of long-stalled six-country nuclear talks.
But a State Department spokesman said on Thursday there was no agreement on new meetings after the talks between Ri and Kim.
The United States is willing to meet North Korea in a bilateral setting, if such contacts lead to a resumption of six-party talks that also include China, Japan, Russia and South Korea.
Those talks have been stalled since North Korea quit them six months ago. In May, Pyongyang conducted its second nuclear test.
Japan's Yomiuri newspaper reported on Thursday that Kim and Ri reached a basic agreement last weekend in New York to have U.S. special envoy Stephen Bosworth visit Pyongyang around the end of November to begin bilateral talks.
The daily, citing an unidentified source, also reported the six-way talks could resume as early as the end of this year as North Korea's return to the talks was a prerequisite for any visit by senior U.S. officials to Pyongyang.
Revere said a possible Bosworth visit was discussed on Friday, but only in the context of North Korea resuming a multilateral approach.
Ri's talks during his trip, including Friday's discussions, were part of the unofficial "Track II" dialogue in which both sides agree to keep comments confidential.
"It's been almost exactly one year since we've had one of these dialogues," Revere said. "This time I think the tone and the atmosphere was considerably better."
(Editing by Peter Cooney)