The U.S. and North Korea reopen nuclear talks Thursday that will provide a glimpse into where Pyongyang’s opaque government is heading after Kim Jong Il’s death and test its readiness to dismantle nuclear programs for much-needed aid.
The two countries were on the verge of a deal to have Washington provide food in return for Pyongyang suspending uranium enrichment when it was upended by the longtime leader’s death on Dec. 17.
That North Korea has agreed to re-enter talks so soon afterward could signal a measure of cohesion and a continuation of Kim Jong Il’s policies as it transfers power to his young son and a coterie of advisers.
However, stonewalling could point to disagreement within the new leadership or unpredictable directions in policy for a government that has long sought to develop nuclear weapons and already has detonated two nuclear test blasts.
The workings of North Korea’s government are difficult for outsiders to discern, so analysts and foreign government officials alike will closely monitor Thursday’s talks in Beijing.
“The fact that North Korea has come to the negotiating table means the country is enjoying a level of internal stability,” said Kim Keun-sik, a North Korea expert at Kyungnam University in South Korea.
“But we can’t immediately link North Korea’s stability to how fruitful the talks will be,” he said.
It is a sensitive time for North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong Un, who is believed to be in his late 20s. The country suffers from chronic food shortages that complicate its vow to start becoming a thriving nation during this year’s centennial of the birth of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung.
North Korea is also locked in a long-running standoff with its neighbors and Washington, who want to see the North’s nuclear program permanently dismantled.
The talks in Beijing, the third round since July, ostensibly are aimed at restarting wider six-nation disarmament negotiations that also involve China, Japan, Russia and South Korea. Pyongyang walked away from those talks in 2009 and later exploded its second nuclear device.
However, in mid-December hopes were high when outlines emerged of a U.S.-North Korean nuclear agreement.
The Associated Press reported then that the U.S. was poised to announce a significant donation of food aid to North Korea. That would have been followed within days by an agreement to suspend North Korea’s uranium enrichment program, according to a broad outline of the agreement made known to the AP by people close to the negotiations.
The six-nation talks, once restarted, would be aimed at dismantling North Korea’s remaining nuclear programs in exchange for what would likely involve even greater donations of aid.
Victor Cha, a Korea expert and White House director of Asian affairs during the George. W. Bush presidency, said he was concerned that the U.S. side may now be overly eager for a deal in hopes of avoiding any Korean security crisis during this year’s presidential election campaign.
“The last thing you want is a deal more than the North Koreans do,” Cha said.
A key success would be gaining North Korea’s agreement to have U.N. watchdogs monitor any freeze of its uranium enrichment, Cha said. Otherwise the country might backtrack – as it has done with previous agreements – and use the enrichment program to leverage additional concessions.
Without monitoring, a nuclear freeze would be like “selling the same horse” over and over again, Cha said.
Worries about North Korea’s nuclear capability took on renewed urgency in November 2010 when the country disclosed a uranium enrichment facility that could give it a second route to manufacture nuclear weapons, in addition to its existing plutonium-based program.
Shi Yuanhua, director of the Center for Korean Studies, Fudan University, said North Korea would likely be cautious on concessions that the United States wants.
“For North Korea, the new regime claims that they will stick unyieldingly with Kim Jong Il’s old policies. If the North Korean public feels that concessions have been made, when the body of Kim Jong il has not turned cold yet, there will be internal chaos,” he said.
The divided Korean Peninsula is still tense from a bloody 2010, which saw the North’s shelling of a front-line island that killed four South Koreans and a deadly warship sinking blamed on the North that killed 46 South Korean sailors.
Kim Jong Il’s death raised fears of even greater uncertainty, although the South’s president, Lee Myung-bak, said Wednesday his country was reading to talk with the North “with an open heart” if it shows a “sincere” attitude.
Evans Revere, a former senior State Department official on East Asia, said there have been more signs of continuity in North Korea than discontinuity since Kim’s death.
Still, he said it remains to be seen if North Korea is willing to accept all the pre-steps the U.S. is demanding for resumption of six-party talks and whether the amount of food the U.S. is offering, reportedly 240,000 tons, is adequate for North Korea’s needs.
The United States also says an improvement in icy ties between North Korea and U.S. ally South Korea is needed before diplomacy can go forward.
“U.S. expectations are not elevated. No one I have talked to thinks there’s going to be a major breakthrough and that North Korea will accept every one of the U.S. pre-steps,” Revere said.
But Revere said he’d heard that the North Korea had requested the meeting, which is a hopeful sign. “No one wants to come to the table to have a disagreement,” he said.
AP reporters Matthew Pennington, in Washington, and Sam Kim, in Seoul, South Korea, contributed.