A flurry of official traffic between Washington, Seoul, and Pyongyang suggests a warming relationship between the US and North Korea even as negotiators look for a face-saving way to get around one critical remaining issue: The highly enriched uranium program that North Korea firmly denies.
As the US envoy, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, prepares to visit the North Korean nuclear complex at Yongbyon next week, analysts here see the US technical team overseeing its disablement as a precursor to diplomatic relations between Washington and Pyongyang.
"Having completed verification of disablement at Yongbyon, they will not just return to Washington," predicts Park Jung Song, a senior fellow at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, affiliated with the foreign ministry. "If the US thinks it's OK, they will go on with the normalization process."
That observation reflects the sense that North Korea, desperate for economic aid, is in a mood to follow through on demands needed to attract investment and engage in significant foreign trade.
First among them is the "denuclearization," the prerequisite for the US to take North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism and remove its ban on trade with the North.
The problem, however, is that the US insists on acknowledgment by North Korea of a program for developing nuclear warheads with enriched uranium that the US says has been going on for years entirely separately from the program at Yongbyon for building warheads with plutonium at their core.
Mr. Hill, when he goes to Pyongyang, will press North Korea to live up to its promise to come clean on its entire nuclear program. The statement, however, may not appear in the "declaration" that North Korea will deliver to the Chinese host of the six-nation process – talks that are aimed at convincing North Korea to abandon its nuclear program in return for vast infusions of aid.
"That is not easy," says Paik Hak Soon at the Sejong Institute, which often advises the government here on its policy of reconciliation. "North Korea's position has been they do not have any such program."
The way out of the impasse, says Mr. Paik, will be for North Korea to admit importing "high-intensity aluminum tubes" for "dual use" – for industry or for enriching uranium. Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf has said the tubes were provided by the disgraced physicist A.Q. Khan, "the father" of Pakistan's atomic bomb, who is now under house arrest in his villa for spreading nuclear technology to North Korea, Iran, and Libya.
"The maximum we can expect from North Korea is how many aluminum tubes were imported, how [many were] used, how [many were] left, and where they were installed," says Paik. "I don't think we can expect more than that."
Hill, visiting here Thursday, seems eager for the next phase of the accord reached with North Korea in February and again at six-nation talks in October. By the end of the year, he says, he's hoping North Korea will not only have disabled its facilities at Yongbyon but will also have disclosed its nuclear inventory.
Then, he says, "we can move on to the next phase," "dismantlement" of all that's been "disabled" at Yongbyon as well as other nuclear facilities, including presumably the site at which the North exploded an underground warhead Oct. 9, 2006.
Anticipating his first visit to the Yongbyon site, he says he expects he will "draw some optimism about what's been done and also will have some pessimism about what has to be done."
Hill hints at compromise, though, when it comes to North Korea's uranium program.
North Korea "has said they do not have a uranium program," he says. "They also have said they will address this issue." If the program is no longer active, he says the US will settle for "an understanding of the past program" but "cannot put ourselves in the position of trying to ignore things."
In the end, he believes, it will be possible to reach agreement "to mutual satisfaction."
As Hill was meeting with South Korean officials, Kim Yong Gon, North Korea's top intelligence figure arrived here for talks with South Korea's unification minister about carrying out the economic agreements reached during South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun's summit in Pyongyang in October with North Korea's leader Kim Jong Il.
In Pyongyang, the North and South Korean defense ministers failed to agree on revision of the Northern Limit Line in the Yellow Sea south of which North Korean fishing boats are banned but came up with a seven-point security guarantee for inter-Korean projects.
"North Korea is in a very critical situation," says Choi Jin Wook, senior fellow at the Korea Institute of National Unification. "They want to push the situation. This is all about the relationship with the US."