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Story highlights

North Korea reached out to U.S. after Obama comments in October

Pyongyang rejected any attempt to include nuclear program in talks

(CNN) —  

North Korea quietly reached out to U.S. officials through the United Nations in New York last fall to propose formal peace talks on ending the Korean War, a response to President Barack Obama’s comments that the U.S. was willing to engage Pyongyang as it has with other rogue regimes, senior U.S. officials told CNN.

That effort fell short, the officials said, with the North Koreans refusing to include their nuclear program in any negotiations as the U.S. required and soon after testing a nuclear weapon.

How North Korea’s nuclear program went from threats to reality

But it represented a new step from the Obama administration as it tried to lure the hermetic country out of its isolation and extend its track record of successful negotiations with nations long at odds with the United States, such as Iran and Cuba.

The U.S. told North Korea it was willing to discuss a formal peace to replace the 63-year-old armistice that ended hostilities after the Korean War, but only if efforts to curb Pyongyang’s nuclear program were part of the discussions.

In doing so, the administration dropped a longstanding demand that North Korea take steps toward “denuclearization” before talks on a formal peace treaty began. Still, the North Koreans refused to allow the nuclear issue to be part of any talks.

“It’s a tweaking of the conditions,” said Bruce Klingner, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation and former deputy division chief for the CIA in South Korea, describing the administration’s move.

“Rather than requiring progress on denuclearization before negotiations, it seems the administration agreed to the idea of peace talks but required denuclearization talks to be included,” Klingner said.

The Wall Street Journal first reported on the diplomatic exchanges, but the Obama administration disputed their depiction of events, saying it was North Korea that first proposed the talks rather than the United States, which maintained its focus on ridding the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons.

U.S. F-22s fly low in a show of force over South Korea

“To be clear, it was the North Koreans who proposed discussing a peace treaty,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement. “We carefully considered their proposal, and made clear that denuclearization had to be part of any such discussion. The North rejected our response.”

North Korea has regularly proposed peace talks over the years, pushing the U.S. to replace the 1953 armistice with a formal peace treaty, said Klingner.

“They periodically raise the idea and it never really gets far,” he said.

One issue that complicates the effort is the need to establish parameters for any negotiations before they begin, in particular to ensure that North Korea’s conventional threat to the South is defused before there’s any demand to remove some of the 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea.

Those soldiers, airmen and Marines provide some deterrent to the North, a highly militarized country that maintains a standing army of 1.2 million active soldiers, 70% of whom are deployed within 100 miles of the border with South Korea, according to Klingner.

A peace treaty should only be signed after arduous negotiations to reduce the North Korean conventional force threat to South Korea, said Klingner, who has