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US-N. Korea nuclear talks: Why return to table now?

The two-way talks the United States will hold with North Korea in New York later this week have the announced purpose of gauging Pyongyang’s seriousness about resuming long-stalled negotiations on its nuclear-weapons program.

But in announcing what she says will be an “exploratory meeting,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton left unmentioned what may be the US’s primary motivation: a desire to head off any new military provocations by a regime that tends to lash out when it is feeling ignored.

Last year the North brought the Korean Peninsula to the brink of war when it sank a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors, and shelled a South Korean island near the two Koreas’ border. The spate of violence came a year after the six-party talks on the North’s nuclear program broke off, leaving Pyongyang further isolated.

US officials have been publicly and privately expressing their mounting concerns that the North may be contemplating more provocative acts to get back on the global agenda – and perhaps to extract some economic favors.

Secretary Clinton, who was traveling in Asia earlier this week, met for four hours Tuesday with Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo, and afterward State Department officials said Clinton had stressed with Mr. Dai US concerns about further destabilizing acts by North Korea.

Clinton “underscored very clearly the risks that North Korea might be contemplating further provocations and the absolute need for China to weigh in strongly on Pyongyang to discourage such actions,” a senior State department official told reporters traveling with Clinton.

The urgency of some manner of preventive diplomacy has also surfaced in Congress.

At a confirmation hearing last week for Sung Kim, President Obama’s nominee as ambassador to South Korea, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts warned that, “Given North Korea’s recent irresponsible conduct, staying in a diplomatic holding pattern invites a dangerous situation to get even worse.”

State Department officials say they expect the talks to take place Thursday and Friday and to involve a North Korean delegation led by Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kae-gwan. Mr. Kim was the North’s chief nuclear negotiator before assuming his new post last year.

The push for renewed talks comes amid some evidence that Pyongyang does not engage in hostilities when it is talking with the US. A study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington found that, with one exception, the North Koreans have not fired missiles or acted otherwise provocatively while they were at the negotiating table with the US.

But not everyone agrees with that finding.

If the Obama administration's "strategy is based on the idea that dialogue will trick the North Koreans into not proceeding with some provocation, it’s a naive and false assumption," says Bruce Klingner, a North Asia expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

Not only has the North conducted provocative acts either during or in the immediate aftermath of talks with the US, Mr. Klingner says, but it has also established a pattern of using its willingness to talk and eventually behave to extract economic concessions from the US and its allies.

No doubt cognizant of this pattern, Clinton said in her statement that the North should not expect any favors just for showing up. “We are open to talks with North Korea, but we do not intend to reward the North just for returning to the table,” she said. “We will not give them anything new for actions they have already agreed to take. And we have no appetite for pursuing protracted negotiations that will only lead us right back to where we have already been.”

Klinger says the US has to go further and demand “tangible progress” from the North on defusing the nuclear standoff before there is any return to the six-party talks, which in addition to the North and the US include South Korea, China, Russia, and Japan.

Such demands might take the North by surprise, Klingner says, since the North Koreans “may very well feel they are coming back in a stronger position” after what he describes as a “weak” response to the North’s bad behavior of the past year.

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