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What's behind North Korea's offer for unconditional talks?

US envoy Stephen Bosworth ended a tour to northeast Asian capitals Friday without any definitive response to North Korea's offer for talks without preconditions. Japan and South Korea rejected the proposal.

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Until recently, North Korea has refused to return to six-party talks, which were last held in Beijing in December 2008. It shifted its position after international condemnation for the shelling in November of a South Korean island in the Yellow Sea, in which two South Korean marines and two civilians were killed.

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“North Korea hopes to fool the South Korean people by a tactical change,” says Baek Seong-joo, director of the Center for Security and Strategy at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses.

Mr. Baek is convinced North Korea’s eagerness to return to the table may appeal to US policymakers. “The US wants to resume six party talks,” he says. “They see a change in the diplomatic climate.”

If North Korea’s position has made an impression on Bosworth, however, he avoided showing it during stops in Seoul, Beijing and finally Japan.

At the outset of his trip in Seoul, he repeated his oft-quoted position that there was no point “in talks for the sake of talks” but did not go beyond his brief formal comment in either Beijing or Tokyo.

What does North Korea want from talks?

China, as expected, has strongly supported North Korea’s call for talks, saying they offer hope for “stability” on the Korean Peninsula. Japanese leaders have been increasingly concerned by rising confrontation on the Korean Peninsula – a major reason why the Democratic Party of Japan has reversed its previously soft-line stance.

Analysts are puzzled, however, as to what North Korea expects from calling for talks – or, for that matter, is likely to gain even if talks resume.

“I can’t figure out Kim Jong-il’s real intention,” says Bae Jong-yun, a politics professor at Yonsei University in Seoul. “How much time does he have to manage life in North Korea,” he asks, raising the question of the North Korean leader’s failing health.

Mr. Bae says, however, North Korea’s need for aid may well be a motivating factor. “They need cash,” he says. “They need food.”

As for Bosworth’s mission, he is not sure it had “meaningful results.”

North Korea, he says, “must show a certain credibility,” including signs of serious willingness to give up its nuclear weapons. “Always,” he notes, “there has been only lip service.”

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