North Korea's nuclear overture: Honest offer or old tricks?

Media reports Tuesday suggest that Pyongyang is prepared to discuss its nuclear program with the US – a significant step back from recent brinksmanship.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Pyongyang has reportedly invited the Obama administration's special envoy to North Korea to come and discuss the country's nuclear program.

As is almost always the case with North Korea, the question is: Why?

It could be a desperate attempt to head off another round of international sanctions that are already crippling the North's feeble economy.

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It could signal renewed attempts by North Korea to pry the United States away from its regional partners, who also oppose the North's nuclear ambitions.

Or it may mean that North Korea is seeking a way to re-enter the good graces of the international community – though diplomats who have been burned by Pyongyang in the past will see this as a long shot.

Whatever the explanation, the invitation, if confirmed, would build upon the overtures that Pyongyang has recently made toward South Korea after months of belligerence, including a nuclear detonation and long-range missile tests.

Does North Korea really want improved relations with neighbors and the world, or is it simply up to its old tricks?

Perhaps it is at least stepping away from the bellicose actions of the past few months, says James "Clay" Moltz, a North Korea expert at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.

Facing bleak economic prospects and what some believe could be an imminent leadership transition, North Korea "seems to have come to a realization that the hard-line policy was simply not sustainable," he says. "That doesn't mean they've abandoned the hard line, but they may have felt compelled to put it on the back burner."

On Tuesday, US officials refused to confirm or deny South Korean media reports that the North invited Stephen Bosworth, President Obama's special envoy on North Korea, to visit Pyongyang next month. The reports said the invitation also included South Korea's chief nuclear negotiator, Sung Kim.

But the invitation would fit with a series of overtures the North has made towards South Korea in recent weeks, including a pledge to resume suspended bilateral infrastructure projects and reunions of families divided since the Korean War and the peninsula's partition.

It would also suggest a deepening of the more conciliatory tone set during former President Clinton's trip to Pyongyang earlier this month, when two American journalists held since March were released.

"Now we can look back at former President Clinton's visit as a kind of reset of US-North Korea relations," Dr. Moltz says. "It seems clear that the information provided to Clinton about positive changes in [the North's] policies was significant, because all of these changes are keyed to that period."

Indeed, Mr. Clinton returned with the invitation to Mr. Bosworth in his pocket, according to the South Korean reports.

So far, the US and South Korea are sticking to their tough stance. Both issued statements earlier this week that the North must take steps towards dismantling its nuclear facilities and ending its missile-launching ambitions before the international community will be open to easing sanctions.

But a genuine invitation to Bosworth would be difficult for the US to disregard, some regional analysts say. For one thing, the US might need to make a good-faith effort to hear what Pyongyang has to say in order to get international cooperation on any future toughening of economic sanctions.

And accepting to talk may be the only way for the US to cajole the North back to the six-party denuclearization talks that both Washington and Seoul want to reconvene, experts say.

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