SANTA FE, New Mexico (CNN) -- North Korea believes it's owed bilateral talks with the United States after the communist government released two detained American journalists this month -- a notion that senior Obama administration officials quickly rejected on Wednesday.
"They feel, the North Koreans, that by giving us the two American journalists, that they've made an important gesture," New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson told CNN Wednesday after meeting with two North Korean diplomats. "And now they're saying the ball's in our court."
But senior Obama administration officials said six-party talks are still the proper venue for such a dialogue, and stressed that Richardson was not negotiating on the president's behalf. Richardson himself said he would only relay the information to the White House.
"Our policy toward North Korea remains today as it has been -- calling for the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula," one of the administration officials said Wednesday. "We believe the six-party talks are the best forum for that. The bottom line is, the ball is in North Korea's court."
The officials said North Korea can choose one of two paths: either continued provocation by testing missiles or a more peaceful road on which they live up to previous commitments.
The visit by the North Korean diplomats comes on the heels of former President Bill Clinton's trip to North Korea to gain the release of the two journalists, Euna Lee and Laura Ling. During the visit Clinton met with reclusive leader Kim Jong Il, whose government is under U.N. sanctions for its efforts to develop a nuclear weapons program.
"They do feel they are owed a gesture on the U.S. part," Richardson said, adding, "I don't believe that should be the case because this was a humanitarian gesture that needed to happen."
The North Korean diplomats felt Clinton's trip helped "thaw relations" and gave North Korea "international prestige," Richardson said.
The White House has said that Clinton was not carrying any message -- written or oral -- from Obama, describing Clinton's trip as a "solely private mission to secure the release of two Americans."
Richardson said the North Koreans are interested only in direct talks with U.S. officials, such as special envoy Stephen Bosworth, and have no plans to return to the six-party talks with China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States.
"They don't like the six-party talks, they felt that it's produced sanctions on them," Richardson said. "They want a new format -- and the format they want is direct talks with the United States."
Administration officials had said they hoped the release of the journalists would give North Korea a face-saving opportunity to return to talks aimed at ending its nuclear program.
Kim Myong Gil and Taek Jong Ho, senior diplomats with the North Korean mission to the United Nations, left New York on Tuesday for two days of meetings with Richardson.
Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has traveled to North Korea several times, most recently in April 2007 to secure the return of the remains of American soldiers killed during the Korean War.
He said the North Korean officials approached him with the idea of meeting.
"I detected for the first time ... a lessening of tension, some positive vibrations," Richardson said, comparing Wednesday's meeting with the many others he's engaged in with the North Koreans.
On Thursday, the two diplomats will talk with Richardson about renewable energy initiatives, Richardson aide Gilbert Gallegos said. New Mexico is a leader in the United States in exploring renewable energy technologies.
CNN's Ed Henry, Paul Vercammen, Elise Labott and Candy Crowley contributed to this report.
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