Restarting diplomacy with North Korea after a three-year halt, the Obama administration said Wednesday that the nuclear-armed nation must show that it is prepared to give up its atomic weapons if it wants better relations with the United States.
The State Department said Ambassador Stephen Bosworth will lead a U.S. delegation into talks with North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan in New York on Thursday and Friday. The discussions aim to build on last week's talks between nuclear negotiators from North and South Korea in Indonesia, the first such meeting since disarmament talks collapsed in 2008.
"We're not prepared to have talks for talks' sake," State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters. "What we're looking for in this meeting is to determine if North Korea is, in fact, ready to fulfill its commitments," referring to a 2005 agreement requiring it to abandon all nuclear weapons programs and allow a return to inspections.
This week's meetings are raising hopes of a revival in disarmament talks after more than a year of animosity and high tension between the rival Koreas. Two attacks Seoul blames on Pyongyang last year killed 50 South Koreans and led to threats of war.
Toner said the U.S. was only engaging in "exploratory" talks. He framed all expectations in the context of the 2005 joint declaration that affirmed the goal of North Korea's verifiable denuclearization in exchange for better relations with its Asian neighbors, energy assistance and a pledge from Washington that it wouldn't attack the isolated communist nation.
Pyongyang, meanwhile, on Wednesday pressed for the U.S. to sign a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War. In an editorial marking the 58th anniversary of an armistice ending the 1950-53 conflict, the official Korean Central News Agency repeated a long-held demand of the North Korean government, saying a peace treaty could help resolve the nuclear deadlock.
The cautious diplomatic jostling ahead of the talks comes after more than a year of hardline unity by Washington and Seoul, backed up by a finding by international investigators that a North Korean torpedo sank a South Korean warship in March 2010, killing 46 sailors. The South demanded an apology from the North for that incident and an artillery attack on a front-line South Korean island that killed four in November.
North Korea denies a role in the sinking and says South Korea provoked the island shelling with a firing drill. At the same time, Pyongyang repeatedly has shown a willingness to return to the disarmament table, with the regime seen as needing a diplomatic breakthrough and outside food aid ahead of the 2012 centennial of the birth of the country's founder, Kim Il Sung.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton invited the North Korean vice foreign minister to New York after what U.S. officials described as a constructive meeting between North and South Korean negotiators at a regional forum of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations last week. But Clinton said the U.S. wouldn't reward the North for just returning to the table or promising to uphold old agreements.
The wariness reflects years of U.S. frustrations with North Korea, which has used its nuclear program to wring concessions from Western nations. The U.S. also said ally South Korea needed to be satisfied with the North's sincerity before Washington would act.
The U.S. also has been studying for months whether to provide North Korea with food aid. Officials are fearful of delivering assistance to a government that hoards the food or directs it to the military instead of to those in need. Toner said no decision has been made on food aid and that the topic was "divorced" from this week's focus.
Kim, Pyongyang's negotiator, told reporters after landing Tuesday in New York that he was "optimistic" that six-party talks could resume and that relations with the U.S. might improve.
"Now is the time for countries to reconcile," he said, according to South Korea's Yonhap News Agency.