The Obama administration will hold two days of meetings with North Korea next week in a bid to resume a nuclear-disarmament process with Pyongyang.
This is a follow-up to preliminary discussions in July that marked the first time an Obama administration official has met representatives of the nuclear- armed totalitarian state since 2009.
The meetings come as North Korean leader Kim Jong Il expressed a renewed interest this week in negotiating with the US and other global powers on the nuclear issue "without preconditions."
Obama administration has decided it is better to engage with North Korea than not because the regime in Pyongyang has often taken hostile actions, including testing nuclear devices, when talks with the US were suspended.
The decision to hold follow-up talks next week was made in consultation with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who was in Washington last week for a state visit with President Barack Obama.
"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." He added.
To demonstrate its seriousness, American officials want Pyongyang to take concrete action such as freezing its uranium and plutonium programs and allowing International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors back into the country. They also are looking for the North to show that it will not launch any new military actions against South Korea, or further nuclear or missile tests.
The talks in Geneva would be "a continuation of the exploratory meetings". The State Department also announced that Stephen Bosworth will be stepping down as the US coordinator on North Korea policy and would be replaced by career diplomat Glyn Davies. The two men will head together to Geneva.
Bosworth, 71, the current US ambassador to the IAEA has served as ambassador to three countries including South Korea during a career spanning five decades.
Toner described Bosworth's resignation as a personal decision and said it did not indicate any shift on North Korea, which along with its main ally China has pushed for the resumption of six-nation talks which also involve South Korea, Russia and Japan.
"This is a change in personnel, not a change in policy," Toner said.
US officials said Wednesday that the renewed outreach to Pyongyang aims to support Seoul's re-engagement with the North.
South Korea and North Korea had sideline contact during the ASEAN Regional Forum in July. The meeting between South Korea's Wi Sung-lac and North Korea's Ri Yong-ho was the first time the two countries had held bilateral talks on nuclear issues. It is also the first contact of any kind between the two sides since multilateral six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear programme collapsed two years ago.
This US- North Korea 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, revealed a uranium enrichment program that could give it another means of generating fissile material for nuclear bombs.
This year, the United States 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 communist-led government shows it is ready to abandon its nuclear weapons arsenal.
Analysts, however, are sceptical. Jack Pritchard, a former US negotiator with North Korea now at the Korea Economic Institute, said the two sides seemed to be inching toward six-party talks but saw little chance of success should they resume, saying North Korea's succession issues preclude progress.
"The North Koreans are in absolutely no position to provide any elements of compromise or creativity at this point," Pritchard said. "Maybe X number of year down the road, but that's not in the cards right now."
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 President Obama would likely want to avoid as he enters an election year.
Report: US and N Korea to discuss nuclear issue in Geneva [BBC news, 19 Oct 2011]
Report: US, North Korea plan talks on disarmament [The Wall Street Journal, 20 Oct 2011]
Report: US sees direct talks with North Korea as better than no talks [Bloomberg News, 19 Oct 2011]
Analysis: The US-South Korea Alliance [Council on Foreign Relations, 13 Oct 2011]