Optimism in check as U.S., North Korea set to talk

Reuters News
Posted: Oct 23, 2011 1:23 AM
Optimism in check as U.S., North Korea set to talk

By Paul Eckert

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Two days of U.S.-North Korea talks opening on Monday in Geneva are aimed more at managing tensions on the tense Korean peninsula than resuming regional talks on ending the North's nuclear programs.

U.S. officials and analysts were keeping expectations low this week, despite a recent slight easing of American ally South Korea's tensions with North Korea and Pyongyang's repeated calls for resuming nuclear talks.

"We are making this effort again not because we have any new information from the (North) but because we think it is important to keep the door open to engagement," said a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"We will not go back to the six-party talks unless we see a real commitment by them on the denuclearization side, and a continuation of their dialogue with South Korea."

The so-called six-party talks -- bringing together China, Japan, Russia, both Koreas and the United States -- produced an agreement in September 2005 under which the North agreed to abandon its nuclear programs in exchange for economic and diplomatic incentives to be provided by other parties.

The Obama administration's position is that there will be no six-party talks unless North Korea improves ties with South Korea and shows it is willing to work from that 2005 agreement, which unraveled before it was ever implemented.

Seoul reaffirmed it shared that stance when President Barack Obama hosted South Korean President Lee Myung-bak at a White House summit this month.

"Many years of experience with North Korea tell us that it is imperative to set the right conditions before resuming negotiations. On this point, there is no daylight between Seoul and Washington," Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan told a security forum in Seoul on Friday.

The United States and North Korea last held bilateral talks in New York in late July. The two Koreas have since held talks that have produced no breakthroughs but ended a frosty rupture in contacts after 2010 saw North Korea kill 50 South Koreans in two attacks near their contested maritime border.


The U.S. official indicated the Geneva talks were in part designed to avoid a repeat of 2010 events, as well as those of the previous year, when North Korea test-launched ballistic missiles and tested a nuclear weapon for the second time.

"Our concern is that if we don't engage, that could result in miscalculations by the North Koreans, as we've seen in the past," said the official.

Some analysts worry Pyongyang might test another nuclear weapon or pick new fights with Seoul to galvanize its population around its campaign that North Korea will be "a strong and prosperous country" by the 100th anniversary of the birth of state founder Kim Il-sung in April 2012.

Next year also features legislative and presidential elections in both the United States and South Korea, whose leaders want keep a new crisis over North Korea out of the headlines -- more incentive to manage ties with Pyongyang.

"The U.S. and South Korea do seem more willing to have meetings, but I think it's wrong to interpret it as a major change in strategy," said Korea expert Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

Klingner and other U.S. observers of North Korea say they harbor low expectations for new six-party talks because Pyongyang has conducted two atomic tests and made advances on its long-range missiles since the 2005 denuclearization pact.

Last year, the North unveiled a uranium enrichment facility that gives it a second route to making an atomic bomb in addition to the plutonium program at the center of six-party talks. It was U.S. suspicions about the uranium program that caused the first U.S.-North Korea nuclear-disarmament-for-aid agreement, struck in 1994, to fall apart in 2002.

Adding to the pessimism is the fact that North Korean state media have insisted for years that Pyongyang would never follow the example of Muammar Gaddafi, who in 2003 agreed to destroy all of Libya's chemical, nuclear and biological weapons in exchange for an end to diplomatic and economic isolation.

Gaddafi was captured and killed on Thursday after being ousted from power two months ago.

(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington and Jeremy Laurence and Kang Seongbin in Seoul; Editing by Doina Chiacu)