Some analysts believe US envoy Stephen Bosworth is likely to win the North's assent during what are the Obama administration's first high-level talks with North Korean officials. But they question if renewed multilateral talks will make much difference. Talks were last held one year ago in Beijing.
South Korea worries that Mr. Bosworth will hold out the lure of opening US-North Korean diplomatic relations and possibly discussing a peace treaty sought by the North to replace the Korean War armistice, sidelining the South.
Bosworth assured wary officials here he would avoid those sensitive topics. He met with them before flying to Pyongyang from Osan Air Base, the major US Air Force base south of here, and is scheduled to return to Seoul Thursday.
South Korean officials, however, remain suspicious. "This game is played by the US, not South Korea," says Lim Jong-taek, a press official in the Foreign Ministry here.
Still, he adds: "I don't think [Bosworth] will ignore our interests. I hope they will take our interests into account. The mission is quite clear."
What will North Korea demand?
Kim Tae-woo, senior fellow and vice president of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, suspects that North Korean and US diplomats, in meetings at the North's UN Mission in New York, may already have come to terms on the North's returning to six-party talks. The question is, what will North Korea get in return?
"Bosworth can save face by getting the promise of six-party talks so his mission is not futile," says Mr. Kim. But that's "the maximum promise Mr. Bosworth can get."
For North Korea, he says, the potential dividends of returning to talks are much higher, including "diplomatic recognition and economic aid," as promised in the Geneva agreement of 1994 between the US and North Korea and then in agreements reached at six-party talks in 2005 and 2007.
He is not optimistic about what six-party talks will deliver, expecting instead another cycle of protracted negotiations. "It will be a repetition of what we have done for the past years," he says.
Other analysts share this view. "North Korea is likely to return to talks, but I don't know how they'll progress," says Han Sung-joo, who has served as South Korea's foreign minister and ambassador to Washington.
Economic troubles weaken Pyongyang
Bosworth, however, is visiting Pyongyang at a period in which North Korea has shown signs of backing down from a confrontational policy while dealing with severe internal problems.
"For the first time in many years, we are seeing improvement," says Dong Yong-sueng, senior fellow at the Samsung Economic Research Institute here. "Confrontation is switching to dialogue," he says, crediting China, host of the six-party talks, with having "played a role" on behalf of North Korea "as a bridge to international society."
North Korea, says Mr. Dong, "wants to break free from isolation from the international community."
Analysts believe North Korea, facing the severe hunger and disease that has stricken the country periodically since the 1990s, is also suffering from UN economic sanctions imposed after its second underground nuclear test on May 25. The US is pushing strenuously for enforcement of the sanctions, designed primarily to keep North Korea from importing and exporting military materiel, notably missiles, and anything to do with weapons of mass destruction.
Bosworth arrives in a week in which the North is demanding that citizens exchange a limited amount of old currency for a new set of notes and coins in which the North Korean won is devalued by 100 to 1. The currency reform is seen as an effort to suppress the small middle class, which poses a threat to the power elite surrounding Kim Jong-il.