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.
The Bush administration also is refusing to talk directly with Iran about its nuclear program, with Syria about Middle East security and the infiltration of terrorists into Iraq, and, like Europe, with the Palestinian government led by Hamas, which it considers a terrorist organization.
This approach to diplomacy is drawing criticism.
"I believe that diplomacy is not simply meant for our friends. It is meant for our enemies," said Richard Armitage, the deputy secretary of state in President Bush's first term. "In fact, our enemies need diplomatic engagement more.
"We ought to have sufficient self-confidence in the correctness of our policy and the ability of our diplomats."
Bush administration officials argue that direct two-way negotiations raise expectations that the United States will make concessions. They say multinational pressure is more effective. Aides to President Reagan made much the same argument in an effort to derail arms-control negotiations with the former Soviet Union.
"You don't want to do the expedient thing. You want to do the right thing, the thing that's effective," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.
Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's diplomacy is in the limelight as the world's confrontation with Iran over its suspected nuclear weapons program intensifies.
Republicans and Democrats are calling on the White House to offer direct talks. Some in Europe—particularly in Germany—are going public with their longstanding desire to see Washington join diplomacy with Iran.
Former Middle East peace envoy Dennis Ross, who served Bush's father and former President Clinton, said the United States could condition a dialogue with Iran on Europe's willingness to back tougher sanctions if Iran fails to change course. Right now, he said, Iran appears unimpressed by the penalties it faces.
"If you don't change the dynamic, you can see where we're headed," Ross said. He referred to a potential choice between allowing Iran to have nuclear weapons and conducting risky airstrikes to destroy its nuclear sites. A military attack risks fueling terrorism and sending oil prices higher.
Rice, after taking office last year, shifted U.S. policy to support negotiations with Iran by Britain, France and Germany. Those talks collapsed after Iran restarted uranium enrichment in January. Rice ruled out direct talks with Tehran.
"We have people who know our views who talk with the Iranians. I don't think that the absence of communication is the problem here," Rice told CNN on Sunday.
There's no certainty that an offer of talks would be accepted, or that the Iranian government—which, to many analysts, appears bent on developing a nuclear arsenal—would deal in good faith.
But Washington would lose nothing—it might even gain support in its confrontation with Iran—by offering to engage Tehran directly, some experts said.
"I don't trust the Iranians. I think they're playing games with us," said Joseph Cirincione of the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank. Yet, he continued, "It's clear to me there's no military solution to the Iran problem."
Former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger is sympathetic to the White House approach.
Eagleburger said he saw little sign that talking to Iran or North Korea would do much good. With Iran, he said, it could dilute Washington's message that it won't allow Tehran to acquire nuclear arms.
"Talking or not talking is almost irrelevant, unless we have some sense that by talking ... that it can have some result," Eagleburger said.
Others say that Bush's approach has lost him important opportunities.
In spring 2003, shortly after Saddam Hussein's regime fell, Iran sent a secret, one-page proposal to Washington offering a dialogue to resolve U.S.-Iranian differences, according to former White House official Flynt Leverett, who said he saw the document.
Leverett said the offer, which apparently had the backing of the Iranian government's many factions, was rebuffed. The U.S. response, he said, was to complain to Switzerland that the Swiss ambassador in Tehran, who forwarded the proposal, had exceeded his authority.
More recently, administration officials refused to meet last month with an adviser to Iran's national security council who came to the United States on a private visit, and they moved to revoke his green card, said two U.S. officials on condition of anonymity.
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."
Paik Haksoon of The Sejong Institute of South Korea said that the U.S. refusal to have face-to-face contact is giving North Korea time to expand its nuclear arsenal.
"The more the U.S. procrastinates and loses time, the more likely North Korea can consolidate itself as a nuclear power state," he said.
James Kelly, Hill's predecessor, also called for direct U.S.-North Korean discussions of the nuclear program, saying that refusing to hold them gives Pyongyang another excuse to boycott the six-nation negotiations.
(Renee Schoof contributed to this report.)