North Korea and US talk for first time since Kim Jong-il's death

Talks today between North Korea and the US could provide insight to whether North Korea's new government is ready for change.

North Korea's First Vice Foreign Minister and envoy to the six-party talks Kim Kye-gwan (2nd L) enters a hotel after a meeting with U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Glyn Davies in Beijing in this photo taken by Kyodo on February 23.

The US and North Korea entered a new round of exploratory talks Thursday in Beijing amid flickering hopes that they would lead at long last to six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program.

As Glyn Davies, the new US envoy to North Korea, sat down with his highly experienced counterpart, Kim Kye-gwan, a basic question was how or whether North Korean policy has changed since the death in December of North Korea’s longtime leader, Kim Jong-il.

Mr. Davies entered the talks saying it was a “positive sign” and “a good thing” that North Korea wanted the talks so soon after the transition from Kim Jong-il to his son, Kim Jong-un.

Analysts see the meetings as a tug-of-war. North Korea wants to get the dialogue moving again in order to secure the food that it desperately needs as its stocks run low during the long, harsh winter months. The US has the opportunity to push North Korea toward giving up its nuclear program by holding out on food aid until it sees progress.

“Kim Kye-gwan is eager to make a breakthrough,” says Choi Jin-wook, North Korea expert at the Korea Institute of National Unification. “He initiated the talks.”

Mr. Choi doubts the US is going to consider North Korea’s anxiety about food unless,or until, North Korea makes a significant concession on its nuclear program. After Kim Jong-il’s death, North Korea's state media hailed the program as Kim Jong-il’s “greatest legacy” and the government has shown no signs of willingness to abandon it.

“The positions of the US and North Korea are quite different,” Choi says, though “six-party talks are still possible.”

The US is believed to be demanding that North Korea at least suspend work on a program for producing the highly enriched uranium needed for nuclear warheads. US nuclear physicist Siegfried Hecker, former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, expressed surprise at how far the North Koreans had gone in their ability to enrich uranium for warheads after seeing the facility at the North Korean nuclear complex in Yongbyon in 2010.

According to most intelligence estimates, North Korea has produced material for a dozen nuclear devices with its aging five-megawatt plutonium reactor at Yongbyon. North Korea conducted underground nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.

L. Gordon Flake, executive director of the Mansfield Foundation in Washington, sees the North Korean request for talks with the US as driven by the need for food.

“The message is North Korea is desperate for food,” says Mr. Flake, a longtime analyst of Korean issues. From the US perspective, he says, the talks in Beijing are “all about whether [North Korea is] serious” about willingness to negotiate on its nuclear program. Six-party talks, hosted by China and last held in Beijing in December 2008, included envoys from Russia and Japan as well as the US and the two Koreas.

The exploratory talks Thursday picked up where negotiators left off in Geneva in October. Davies and Kim Kye-gwan were set to meet in Beijing in the third week in December but cancelled after Kim Jong-il’s death.

“What precisely” were the policies of Kim Jong-un or “in what direction he wants to take his country,” Davies said, “are unknown.”

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