An envoy dispatched by President Barack Obama launched a mission Tuesday to coax North Korea to rejoin international talks on ending its nuclear programs amid warnings of strong sanctions if Pyongyang refuses.
Veteran diplomat Stephen Bosworth's visit is being closely watched for signs whether the isolated communist country will return to the negotiating table after carrying out an atomic test blast in May and quitting the six-nation talks.
Bosworth arrived in the North Korean capital Tuesday along with Washington's lead nuclear negotiator, Sung Kim. Footage from APTN showed the pair at an airport in Pyongyang, shaking hands with North Korean officials and posing for photos.
In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters that Bosworth and his team likely had meetings Tuesday and expected more high-level talks Wednesday as well. He said U.S. officials don't expect any communication with Bosworth's group until it leaves North Korea.
Just before Bosworth began his mission, a senior U.S. official had said bluntly that he was bringing no new incentives.
"We don't intend to reward North Korea simply for going back to doing something that it had previously committed to do," the official told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity during the background briefing.
He warned that the North faces strong U.N. sanctions if it does not agree to return to negotiations.
"At a minimum, I think it will reinforce the intention of the international community to continue a very strong enforcement" of U.N. sanctions resolutions adopted to punish the North for its nuclear test and other provocations, the official said.
This week's talks _ the first direct U.S.-North Korean discussions since Obama took office in January _ come after a year of threatening rhetoric and rising tensions on the Korean peninsula. Earlier this year, Pyongyang expelled U.N. nuclear inspectors, restarted its atomic facilities, test-fired a long-range rocket and a series of ballistic missiles, quit six-party talks and conducted the nuclear test.
But now, North Korea has no choice but to rejoin the disarmament process since Washington has made it a condition of bilateral contact, said Koh Yu-hwan of Seoul's Dongguk University.
Pyongyang sees direct talks with the U.S. as a key way of ensuring the survival of the regime and winning aid necessary for rebuilding its moribund economy. This week's visit comes as North Korea is redenominating its national currency in an effort to curb runaway inflation and reassert its control on the economy.
Former nuclear envoy Christopher Hill was the last high-level official to visit for direct talks. He was in North Korea in October 2008.
Pyongyang says it needs nuclear bombs to counter the strong U.S. military presence in South Korea. The impoverished country has also used the atomic threat to win aid and other concessions from regional powers wary of the unpredictable neighbor.
But in recent months, the North has tried to reach out to the U.S. and South Korea in an abrupt about-face that analysts and officials say shows the impoverished regime is feeling the pain of U.N. sanctions. Since August, the North has freed detained U.S. and South Korean citizens and taken other conciliatory steps, including inviting Bosworth for direct talks.
Neither side has said which North Korean officials Bosworth will meet in Pyongyang during his three-day trip, though he is widely expected to sit down with Kang Sok Ju, the first vice foreign minister, who is considered the chief foreign policy strategist for leader Kim Jong Il.
It was unclear whether Bosworth would meet the reclusive Kim himself, but Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul's University of North Korean Studies, said the talks could yield a breakthrough if Bosworth does meet the North Korean leader.
"It was Kim Jong Il's decision to invite Bosworth. So if Bosworth meets him, there would be progress," Yang said.
However, James Kelly, a former U.S. envoy who met Kang during a 2002 visit to the North, said Pyongyang appears unlikely to irreversibly disarm its nuclear weapons anytime soon and wants to wrest concessions from the U.S. in exchange for some good behavior.
"Bosworth needs to patiently try to bring them from the superficial situation ... and take them to more substantial direction," Kelly said by telephone from his home in Honolulu.
Analyst Paik Hak-soon of the private Sejong Institute think tank said it was too early to expect a major breakthrough.
"It'll be a preparatory step ahead of full-fledged negotiations. They'll disclose their positions and listen to each other, find and understand what their common interests are and what differences they have," he said.
In addition to Sung Kim, Bosworth was accompanied by nuclear and Asia specialists from the Defense Department and the White House. The delegation is to return to Seoul on Thursday before continuing onto Beijing, Tokyo and Moscow to brief other parties in the international talks before returning to Washington.
Associated Press writers Foster Klug and Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.