A US diplomat returns to Washington Monday with 18,000 pages of information supplied by North Korea after talks in Pyongyang meant to end the impasse on getting the North to give up its nuclear program.
Despite the volume of papers given to Sung Kim, a US State Department expert on Korea, analysts doubt if the documents address vital US questions on enriched uranium and export of nuclear expertise to Syria.
Still, analysts say, the hand-over marks a concrete step forward that could open the way to further progress, driven in part by North Korea's desperation over looming threats of famine and disease.
But analysts don't suggest that North Korea is ready to give up all its nuclear secrets, much less the warheads it has already produced.
"Fundamentally, I don't think the North Koreans will be very correct and honest in their declaration," says Kim Tae Woo, senior fellow of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, affiliated with the defense ministry. "It's impossible they will give up their nuclear option."
Nonetheless, says Mr. Kim, "Even though the declaration is not perfect, still they need progress." Analysts say the country's economic problems and food shortage are approaching the widespread famine and suffering of the 1990s.
The US is reportedly prepared to send North Korea 500,000 tons of foodstuffs as US technicians monitor disablement of the Yongbyon complex amid reports that the North may blow up the reactor's cooling tower as symbolic evidence that it's making good on its promise to give up the entire program.
"But we have to remember two other sensitive issues, the Syrian connection and the enriched uranium program," says Kim. "They've been pushed aside."
Although North Korea is not expected to publicly acknowledge either issue, US officials are pinning hopes on a memorandum worked out last month by the US chief nuclear negotiator, Christopher Hill, and North Korea's nuclear negotiator Kim Kye Gwan. The memorandum reportedly calls for North Korea to recognize concerns without making a full admission.
Sung Kim, of the State Department, says only, "We'll have to take them back and see," when asked what's in the documents. The hand-over may, however, ease the way for another round of six-party talks in Beijing next month.
In any case, says Kim Tae Woo, "the situation may push the US to move forward" on getting the congressional approval needed to remove North Korea from the list of nations sponsoring terrorism and to lift economic sanctions.
Those steps are crucial as North Korea faces renewed threats of famine and disease. Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency, reminding readers of "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il's call for an "agricultural revolution," has editorialized that the need "to drastically increase grain production" and "resolve the problem of eating" is the country's "most pressing and important issue."
Conversations with North Koreans crossing the Tumen River border into China bear out the urgency of the food problem. "The situation is extremely dire," says Tim Peters, founder of Helping Hands Korea, which aids North Korean refugees. "The poor harvest and poor weather are the worst in 13 to 14 years."
Mr. Peters, reached by phone as he met North Koreans on the Chinese side of the Tumen River, gets the impression that persecution may have eased as the crisis deepens. "People are more vocal about their feelings," he says. "They seem less fearful about talking."
An influx of aid from the US and South Korea, on top of aid the North receives from China, "could be a big help," he adds, "but my question is, how far will it filter down to the little people?"
Others are also skeptical.
"My hunch is there won't be any substantive change in North Korea's attitude," says Lee Chang Choon, a former South Korean ambassador. "It's just drama on their part," he says of the North's decision to provide thousands of documents. "Less than one page is enough to say what they're doing."
But Mr. Lee says the North's need for food will promote dialogue. "It seems the food situation is getting [much] worse."