AS the late Kim Il Sung's son Kim Jong Il appears to consolidate his grip on power in North Korea, US officials are now cautiously optimistic that high-level talks between Pyongyang and Washington will not be derailed by a succession crisis.
The Geneva talks, an important juncture in the ongoing dispute over North Korea's suspected nuclear-weapons program, had just begun on July 8 when they were halted by news of the North Korean leader's passing. A resumption date has not yet been set, but the United States expects a new schedule will be forthcoming shortly after funeral ceremonies on July 17.
The leader of the North Korean delegation to the talks, himself a high-level official whose stature is pointed out by his presence on Kim Il Sung's funeral committee, has told his US counterparts that he will be back in Geneva soon.
``Every sign so far points to continuity,'' said Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Winston Lord at a briefing for reporters July 11. (Profile of Kim Jong Il, Page 3.)
But the fact that talks will likely resume does not indicate whether chances for resolving the standoff over international inspections of North Korea's nuclear facilities are better, worse, or unchanged.
A number of analysts in Washington say that the negotiations were not going anywhere to begin with and were simply a delaying tactic by North Korea as it proceeded apace with nuclear weapons.
If that is true, then the interregnum caused by the passing of the elder Kim will greatly aid Pyongyang's purpose.
In any case, Kim Jong Il has likely been a major influence on North Korea's zigzagging diplomacy with the rest of the world over its nuclear program. The younger Kim has been head of the military for three years and thus in a position to wield power second only to that of his father.
Kim Jong Il's relationship with his generals will be key to the direction negotiations now take, according to analysts. If he feels a need to appease military hard-liners to consolidate his grip on power, then talks might slow further.
But the erstwhile ``dear leader,'' as the son has been called, has in fact tried to both appease and restrict the opinions of the most hawkish elements in the military, says John Goulde, a professor of Asian Studies at Sweet Briar College in Sweet Briar, Va.
The nature of the 300 or so generals Kim Jong Il has appointed in recent years ``indicates he is trying to steer a middle ground,'' Professor Goulde claims.
North appears serious
Pyongyang is at least approaching negotiations with the US in a serious manner, according to Goulde, whether the issues involved can be resolved or not. ``The fact that they would talk directly to the US about nuclear inspection looks like an attempt to resolve the issue,'' he says.
But the long-isolated regime, now shorn of the only top leader it has known to this point, may find it as difficult to read the purposes of the outside world as the outside world finds it to read theirs. With government machinery made grotesquely inefficient by the personality-cult leadership of the late Kim Il Sung, Pyongyang might not be able to come to terms with Washington even if it wants to.
The US, with its own alternate carrot-and-stick approach to relations with North Korea, has only confused matters, according to Peter Hays, a North Korea expert at the California-based Nautilus Pacific Research Institute.
``We've got two sides with ill-defined goals and methods talking to each other. It's hard to imagine a meeting of the minds,'' he says.
Hanging over the talks, once they resume, will be the issue of fuel rods recently removed from an experimental North Korean nuclear reactor. If reprocessed, these rods could produce enough plutonium for five or six nuclear weapons, according to US experts.
Kim Il Sung had agreed to a freeze on North Korea's nuclear program, meaning these rods would not be moved from cooling ponds to a reprocessing facility. If such a move does take place after the rods have cooled enough for handling - sometime around mid-August - then the US will have received a strong indication that Kim Jong Il intends to press forward with North Korea's nuclear program, regardless of world opinion.
North Korea's Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations Kim Su Man said that his country's nuclear freeze would continue under its new leader, according to Japan's Kyodo News Service.
Kim Su Man was quoted as saying that withdrawn fuel rods would not be reprocessed or replaced and that international nuclear inspectors could stay on at the country's nuclear facilities in Yongbyon.