South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon on Monday urged patience in attempts to lure North Korea back to talks about its nuclear weapons ambitions rather than risk a "negative" response from the secretive state.
North Korea spurned calls at a regional security forum last month to return to the six-party talks, even threatening to quit the ASEAN Regional Forum altogether.
The talks have been stalled since November and attempts to bring the communist state to informal discussions at the ASEAN forum in Kuala Lumpur failed, but Ban urged caution and diplomacy despite the lack of progress.
"We need to be at this time to be patient, not to take any premature actions which may press North Korea to take negative responses," he said after addressing a foreign policy think tank in Australia.
Fears about North Korea's nuclear ambitions were exacerbated when Pyongyang defied international warnings and fired seven missiles into waters east of the Korean peninsula on July 5, an act Ban described as provocative.
The influential International Crisis Group (ICG) said in a report last week that North Korea needs to be given a face-saving way to come back to the talks or it might choose to increase tension through missile or nuclear tests.
It said one way to reduce tensions might be for the United States to ease some of the financial restrictions it placed on North Korea.
Ban said the United States, South Korea, China, Russia and Japan should continue five-party talks in the absence of North Korea as they had agreed to after their failure to lure Pyongyang back to the negotiating table in Kuala Lumpur.
"I am as frustrated as anybody else by the lack of progress, the lack of flexibility on the part of North Korea," Ban said.
"The international community should continue to send out a strong and firm message and take firm positions so that North Korea cannot take any further negative actions. At the same time we need to employ this diplomacy and for dialogue to continue."
Ban said one of the major sticking points continued to be the US crackdown on firms it suspects of aiding North Korea in illicit activities such as counterfeiting.
North Korea has denied any wrongdoing and said it would be unthinkable for it to return to the discussions while Washington was trying to topple its leaders through financial pressure.
Ban said the remaining five parties needed to convince North Korea to "delink" the talks on its nuclear ambitions and the crackdown on illicit activities.
"We have urged North Korea that this is a separate issue," he said.
The ICG report recommended that the United States free up some $24 million in North Korean assets frozen in a Macau bank after the US Treasury Department branded the bank "a willing pawn" in Pyongyang's activities.