Raising hopes for a new era of rapprochement with nuclear-armed North Korea, the Obama administration said Wednesday it would sit down with the reclusive regime for a fresh round of atomic weapons talks and appoint a full-time envoy with the task of persuading Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program.
Disarmament efforts are saddled with a history of deceit and mistrust, but the meetings on Monday and Tuesday in Geneva represent another step forward after last year's military attacks on South Korea that led to threats of war. They are the second set of nuclear discussions between the United States and North Korea since July, after a three-year freeze in diplomacy.
"We're looking for more progress," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in Washington. "We're not seeking to reward North Korea in any way by holding these talks. And we certainly don't want to have talks just for the sake of talking. We want to see a seriousness of purpose and a commitment to moving this process forward to taking the steps that they've already committed to take."
As Washington intensifies its engagement of Pyongyang, it is turning to seasoned diplomat Glyn Davies to lead the efforts. Davies, the U.S. ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, will replace Stephen Bosworth, though both will be meeting next week with the North Korean delegation led by Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan.
The U.S. and its ally South Korea are pressing familiar demands. Toner said the U.S. wants North Korea to adhere to a 2005 agreement it later reneged on, which required the North's verifiable denuclearization in exchange better relations with its Asian neighbors, energy assistance and a pledge from Washington that it wouldn't attack the isolated country. The U.S. and North Korea are still formally at war, having only signed an armistice ending their 1950-1953 conflict.
US targets uranium, plutonium programs
To demonstrate its seriousness, American officials want Pyongyang to take concrete steps such as freezing its uranium and plutonium programs and allowing IAEA inspectors back into the country. They are also looking for the North to show that it won't launch any new military actions against South Korea, or further nuclear or missile tests.
In its latest nuclear-related infraction, North Korea unveiled a uranium enrichment program in 2010 in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions. Tensions also spiked last year after South Korea was attacked twice militarily, including the sinking of a submarine that was blamed on the North and killed 46 sailors.
In a separate engagement effort, the U.S. also has reopened talks with North Korea on cooperative searches for the remains of U.S. troops killed in the Korean War. This is a topic that Pyongyang sees as a humanitarian gesture and that Washington has periodically embraced as a means of improving relations.
A U.S. delegation led by the Pentagon's top POW/MIA official began talks Tuesday with the North Koreans on how and when to resume searches for what the Pentagon estimates are 5,500 U.S. servicemen unaccounted for on North Korean soil. Also at issue is how much North Korea would be paid for assisting the searches; prior to a suspension of the effort in 2005 the U.S. paid about $1 million per mission.
North Korea's economy is in shambles and even those small sums would have meaning as the Kim Jong Il's regime prepares for a leadership succession and the centennial next year of the birth of his father and the nation's founder, Kim Il Sung.
The Pentagon's talks in Bangkok were expected to conclude Thursday. The remains recovery program began in 1996 and was previously suspended by the U.S. from October 2002 to June 2003 after the North Koreans disclosed to a State Department envoy that they had secretly been running an active nuclear weapons program.
Obama sends stern remarks
The U.S. and North Korea have no formal diplomatic ties, and relations have forever been rocky. During a state visit to Washington last week by South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, President Barack Obama stated bluntly that "if Pyongyang continues to ignore its international obligations it will invite even more pressure and isolation."
The bilateral nuclear talks are an attempt to restart broader, six-nation disarmament-for-aid negotiations that Pyongyang pulled out of in April 2009 after being censured for launching a long-range missile. The North then conducted its second-ever nuclear test and, late last year, unveiled a uranium enrichment program that could give it another means of generating fissile material for nuclear bombs.
This year, U.S. and South Korea have offered the North another chance. But they are insisting that six-nation talks — which also include North Korean ally China as well as Russia and Japan — cannot resume unless the regime shows it is ready to abandon its nuclear weapons arsenal.
In Geneva, Bosworth will introduce Davies to the North Korean delegation, and Toner said the U.S. would ensure a "seamless transition" in guiding the U.S. policy toward North Korea. This is a change in personnel, not in policy," he said.
Bosworth, who has long experience in diplomacy with North Korea, served as special representative since February 2009, but always retained his academic post as dean of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
A respected career diplomat, Davies will commit to the job full-time. Prior to serving at the IAEA, he held a senior position in the State Department's bureau of East Asian and Pacific affairs and was the agency's deputy spokesman under President Bill Clinton.
Toner said he didn't expect the U.S. and North Korean delegations to discuss food aid in Geneva, which the administration has been reluctant to offer for fear that any assistance would be hoarded or directed toward the military instead of delivered to those in need.
It appears unlikely the regime would agree to give up its nuclear weapons, despite its perilous economic situation and need for aid. But engaging the North may serve to forestall another military provocation or a nuclear test — the kind of security crisis Obama would likely want to avoid as he enters an election year.