Skepticism surrounds North Korean diplomacy

After a surprise US-North Korea talk, Korean leader Kim Jong II Wednesday promised a follow-up in Pyongyang.

A chat over coffee between US Secretary of State Colin Powell and North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun this week at an Asian summit in Brunei is another in a surprising series of openings by the troubled and isolated regime of Kim Jong Il – and the first US-North Korean contact since President Bush termed the regime part of an "axis of evil."

The Powell meet adds to a flurry of unexpected shifts by the North: Pyongyang last week, for example, expressed "regret" for a naval encounter last month in the Yellow Sea that killed four South Korean sailors. The North confirmed Tuesday it will alter its food rationing system, a cornerstone of the North's Stalinist economy, to allow for markets. And Friday, the first (low-level) talks in months between the North and South commence – part of a North Korean offer that includes "unconditional" talks with Japan and the US.

For officials here eager to restart a reconciliation process between the North and South – two states technically still at war – the sudden moves are a breakthrough amid months of a heavy diplomatic stalemate.

Yet reservations and skepticism about the North's desire for genuine reconciliation have been steadily deepening in this capital, where the popularity of President Kim Dae Jung's Nobel-Prize Winning "Sunshine Policy" is on the wane.

Some Korean analysts say the North is simply "keeping its cards in play," as one put it, positioning itself to get desperately needed food aid and loans.

Yet others argue that the sudden shifts by Pyongyang are timed to allow a major advance in North-South relations to take place this fall prior to South Korea's national elections in December – perhaps even a first-ever trip by reclusive Kim Jong Il to Seoul. One outcome of the Brunei meeting, offered by the European Union, is to hold the next intra-Korean summit in Seoul this October. Currently, the ruling party in Seoul, considered friendlier to the North, is far down in the polls.

"I don't think this is a breakthrough. For a breakthrough the North must change substantially," argues Paek Jin Hyun, senior professor of international relations at Seoul National University. "The US hasn't changed its position. It wants to talk about missiles, weapons of mass destruction, and nuclear safeguards. Those are very hard issues for the North. I don't think they have their mind made up."

Still, the sudden spurt of diplomatic activity by the North – quite different from its usual pattern of carefully orchestrated last-minute brinkmanship – has optimists in Seoul starting to stir. Officials here have been using the word "unblocking."

Foreign Minister Paek told reporters Thursday that US Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly would be traveling soon to Pyongyang, though Washington has yet to confirm, as of this writing.

The US and North Korea have not had high-level talks since President Clinton's administration secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, visited Pyongyang in 2000. US diplomats were on the verge of a trip to the North last month, when a North Korean gunship opened fire on a South Korean naval vessel. The sinking of the ship during World Cup games, co-hosted by the South, added fuel to those in Seoul who question the engagement policy of President Kim – and caused Washington to cancel its visit to Pyongyang. Some analysts suspect that Kim Jong Il was simply unready for the kind of talks Washington expected.

Next week, North Korea will hold a ceremony in the eastern port of Sinpo to mark the start of construction on a long-awaited nuclear power reactor .

As part of a 1994 deal, North Korea must show it is in compliance with nuclear safeguards that forbid production of weapons grade plutonium – a challenge some US officials have described as a "moment of truth" for the regime.

The North has long used its isolation and its missile and nuclear program as a kind of negotiating ploy, analysts say.

"Two years ago at an ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] forum in Bangkok, Minister Paek also stole the show by his meetings," says a source in Seoul close to the Foreign Ministry. "The North continually tests each state, Japan, the South, the US, China, before coming up with a plan. They use their isolation to advantage."

In Brunei, Paek started a long-stalled new dialogue with Japan, and met with Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan, as well as representatives of Brunei, Thailand, and Australia.

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