TOKYO -- Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday that the United States was prepared to reach out to Kim Jong-un of North Korea if he made the first move to abandon his nuclear weapons program.
"We need the appropriate moment, appropriate circumstance," Mr. Kerry told reporters in Tokyo.
While he did not say specifically what steps would be needed, according to the long-standing United States position they might include a public commitment to denuclearization and such measures as halting the production of nuclear material, refraining from testing missiles and ceasing threats to attack its neighbors.
Over the past week, there has been considerable attention on the United States' vows to militarily defend its Asian allies and its warning that North Korea should forgo a test firing a Musudan medium-range missile.
But the United States has also canceled military exercises and toned down its statements in recent weeks to try to create an atmosphere in which talks with North Korea might begin, a theme that Mr. Kerry emphasized on Sunday.
"What we really ought to be talking about is the possibility of peace," he said in a joint news conference on Sunday with Fumio Kishid, Japan's foreign minister. "And I think there are those possibilities."
Sketching out his approach in his meeting later in the day with reporters, Mr. Kerry said that before talks could begin, North Korea needed to take tangible steps to demonstrate that it was serious about denuclearization.
But it seemed unlikely that that precondition for talks would be met by North Korea, given the country's announcements that it considers itself to be a nuclear state and its dedication to a "military-first" stance that channels resources to its armed forces.
The Obama administration has been willing to conduct direct talks with Iranian officials and sought early in Mr. Obama's first term to forge a constructive relationship with President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. But the White House, in a policy that some have called strategic patience, has remained unwilling to meet openly with top North Korean officials unless they first committed to denuclearization.
Mr. Kerry indicated there were some circumstances in which he could imagine sending a representative to talk to North Korean leaders or engaging directly with the North Koreans through a diplomatic back channel.
"It may be that somebody will be asked to sit down," he said.
"I am open personally to exploring other avenues; I particularly want to hear what the Chinese have to say," Mr. Kerry said. "I am not going to be so stuck in the mud that an opportunity to actually get something done is flagrantly wasted."
"But fundamentally the concept is they're going to have to show some kind of good faith here so that we are not going around and around," he said. "They have to indicate that seriousness of purpose to go toward the denuclearization, and there are ways that they can do that."
Tokyo is the final stop on Mr. Kerry's six-nation tour and his third destination in Asia. As part of its regional diplomacy, the United States has also been urging Japan and South Korea, its two main regional allies but who remain divided by history, to cooperate on North Korea.
In his news conference in Tokyo, Mr. Kerry expanded on his remarks on Saturday that the United States would be willing to withdraw some of the antimissile defenses it recently deployed if China were able to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program. Those remarks, made at a news conference in Beijing, were seen as a lure to elicit China's cooperation.
"The president of the United States deployed some additional missile defense capacity precisely because of the threat of North Korea," Mr. Kerry said. "And it is logical that if the threat of North Korea disappears because the peninsula denuclearizes, then obviously that threat no longer mandates that kind of posture."
"But there have been no agreements, no discussions; there is nothing actually on the table with respect to that," he added.
So far, Mr. Kerry's comments and his endorsement of South Korea's efforts to open a dialogue with the government of Kim Jong-un in the North have produced nothing but scorn from North Korea's leaders.
On Sunday, North Korea rebuffed a South Korean proposal for dialogue, calling it "empty" and a "cunning trick."
"If South Korea truly does want to have talks, it should first change its confrontational stance rather than playing on words," a spokesman of the North's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea was quoted as saying on Sunday by the official Korean Central News Agency. "It will depend on the South Korean authorities' attitude whether there will be dialogue in the future."
Martin Fackler contributed reporting from Tokyo, and Choe Sang-hun from Seoul, South Korea.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.