WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. and North Korean officials will meet in Beijing next week for talks Washington hopes may clarify whether Pyongyang's new leadership is willing to curb its nuclear programs, the State Department said on Monday.
However, Korea analysts said they expected little progress on the nuclear issue during the February 23 talks between U.S. Ambassador Glyn Davies and North Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan.
Pyongyang agreed to abandon its nuclear programs under a September 2005 aid-for-denuclearization agreement hammered out in so-called six-party talks among North and South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States.
Since then, however, it has twice conducted nuclear tests and it has disclosed the existence of a uranium enrichment program, giving it a second path to obtaining fissile material for bombs in addition to its long-standing plutonium program.
Next week's meeting would be the third between the two sides in the last eight months and the first since the death of former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, who has been succeeded by his little-known son Kim Jong-un.
"This is a continuation of the meetings that we have been having with North Korea ... to see if it is prepared to fulfill its commitments under the 2005 Joint Statement of the Six-Party Talks (and) its international obligations as well as to take concrete steps towards denuclearization," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters.
"The question is whether they are prepared to respond to what we are looking for in order to get back to talks, so that's what we're looking to find out in Beijing," she added. "We thought that it was a good time to see where they are."
Jack Pritchard, a former U.S. negotiator with North Korea who heads the Korea Economic Institute, expected little progress at the meeting but said North Korea might seek to win some kind of benefit from the United States ahead of the mid-April 100th anniversary of the birth of the state's founder, Kim Il-Sung.
The key deliverable that the North is likely to seek is U.S. food aid for its chronically hungry population. Nuland, however, said food aid was not the main focus of the talks, though the United States would listen to what the North had to say.
"I continue to believe that denuclearization is the last thing that this new, fragile administration can consider," Pritchard said.
"For them to give that up is to lose all the leverage that they have," he added. "The military would not allow that to occur."
(Reporting By Arshad Mohammed; editing by David Storey)