A month later it conducted its second test of a nuclear weapon.

"If the United States is not ready to sit down face-to-face with us for talks, we cannot but go on our own way"

North Korean foreign ministry

At the time it said it considered the six-party disarmament process to be dead, but last month it began to hint that it would consider a return to negotiations.

Elaborating on those moves on Monday, the North's foreign ministry said that it was time for the "direct parties" – the US and North Korea – to "sit down and find a rational solution".

"Now that we have shown the generosity of stating the position that we would be willing to talk to the United States and hold multilateral talks including the six-way talks, it is time for the United States to make a decision," KNCA quoted the spokesman as saying.

'Hostile policy'

He added: "If the United States is not ready to sit down face-to-face with us for talks, we cannot but go on our own way."

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The comments are the strongest indication yet that the North is willing to consider a return to the stalled disarmament talks.

The six-party talks bring together envoys from the US, China, Russia, Japan and the two Koreas, but no meeting has been held for almost two years.

North Korea has frequently blamed what it calls Washington's "hostile policy" for the breakdown of the talks and said direct face-to-face negotiations with the US are the only way to end the nuclear standoff.

It has not said what it wants to achieve from bilateral talks with the US, although it is likely to press for an end to crippling financial sanctions and other concessions.

The US however has said it will only agree to direct talks with North Korea as part of a resumption of the broader six-party dialogue.

Scenarios

North Korea's latest statement comes amid reports that the US and South Korea have recently completed contingency plans to deal with a possible collapse of the North Korean state or other emergencies.

The contingency plan deals with a range of scenarios on the Korean peninsula [EPA]
North Korea has previously denounced such plans, which it says constitute preparations for invasion and proof of the hostile policies of the US and its South Korean ally.

According to South Korea's Yonhap news agency, Operational Plan (OPLAN) 5029 details case-by-case scenarios for a range of emergencies, including civil war in the North, regime change or an outflow of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).

Under the plan the US would assume the role of dealing with North Korea's WMDs – including its nuclear weapons – while South Korean troops would take the lead in most other areas.

Yonhap said both governments were worried about a possible transfer of weapons and know-how to terrorist groups or other countries.

Neither the US or South Korean governments have made any public comment on the document.