The US has announced on Monday that it would send a senior envoy to Beijing for talks with North Korea over its nuclear programme. This will mark the first significant US-North Korea contact since the demise of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
According to the US State Department, Glyn Davies, the coordinator for US policy in North Korea, will meet on 23 February with veteran North Korean negotiator Kim Kye Gwan in the Chinese capital.
The US has been seeking an opportunity to continue the stalled six-party denuclearisation talks with the North, but has demanded that Pyongyang respects a 2005 agreement to remove its nuclear weapons. Assistant secretary of state for Asian affairs Kurt Campbell said two weeks ago that the US was “open to diplomacy” with North Korea’s new leadership, but underscored that US officials wanted the reclusive North to first improve relations with South Korea.
US officials say the Obama administration passed on messages to North Korea through its mission at the UN shortly after Kim Jong Il’s death, seeking guidance on the future of the talks.
The US held two rounds of talks with the North last year in New York and Geneva to keep open a channel of dialogue, even with Washington’s doubts over whether North Korea will ever denuclearise. A third round was due to take place in Beijing in December but was postponed when Kim Jong Il died suddenly, with his untested son Kim Jong Un assuming leadership with little time to consolidate his power.
Experts see Kim Jong Un as ruling with the North Korean military’s support, along with key members of the Kim family. The younger Kim is believed to be ruling under the guidance of his aunt, Kim Kyong Hui, and her husband Jang Song Thaek.
The six-party talks collapsed in 2008, with North Korea expanding its nuclear ambitions since then, conducting a nuclear test in 2009 and revealing an advanced uranium enrichment plant in 2010. Inter-Korean relations have also deteriorated, with the South Korean government curbing aid shipments to the North and the North allegedly sinking a South Korean warship and also shelling a South Korean island that it claims.
Experts weigh in
Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Scott Snyder said the North had been eager to continue dialogue with the US, partly to show that the regime is functioning as it was before Kim Jong Il’s demise.
Victor Cha, who helped manage North Korea policy in George W. Bush's second term, remarked, “It's very hard to know what to expect from these talks… [and] to imagine anything seriously happening on the nuclear issue.”
Announcement comes as Chinese Vice President begins US visit
The announcement of the new talks comes as Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping begins his visit to the US. Mr Xi is widely expected to be the next leader of China after President Hu Jintao steps down.
China has been urging the US and North Korea to resume a dialogue to end their dispute over the North’s nuclear programme. China has been a regular host in recent years of the six-party talks, which also include the US, Japan, Russia and both Koreas.
US officials, however, said the resumption of talks with North Korea was not related to Mr Xi’s visit.
Report: US, N. Korea to hold first talks since leader's death [AFP, 14 Feb 2012]
Report: US to Meet North Koreans for New Talks [NY Times, 13 Feb 2012]
Report: US to Meet With New North Korean Regime [Wall Street Journal, 14 Feb 2012]