U.S. invites N. Korean official to New York for talks

North Korea’s vice foreign minister will visit New York this week for a rare meeting that could pave the way for a resumption of multinational denuclearization talks, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Sunday.

The meeting between Kim Kae Gwan and U.S. officials, arranged at Washington’s request, represents a chance for the first diplomatic progress with North Korea in more than two years. But breaking that long stalemate also comes with a risk; the Obama administration has long been wary of the six-party talks and doubtful of Pyongyang’s willingness to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.

Clinton described the upcoming meeting as “exploratory.” The United States and other involved nations — China, Russia, Japan and South Korea — can reopen the six-party talks if Pyongyang stands behind its 2005 agreement to abandon its nuclear efforts, Clinton said.

“We are open to talks with North Korea, but we do not intend to reward the North just for returning to the table,” she said in a statement. “We will not give them anything new for actions they have already agreed to take. And we have no appetite for pursuing protracted negotiations that will only lead us right back to where we have already been.”

The six-party talks, launched in 2003, have generated a cycle of promises and promises broken. The negotiations officially broke off in April 2009, just months after the latest North Korean agreement, when the country launched a missile, drawing international condemnation. Since then, the United States and North Korea have held high-level diplomatic talks only once, in December 2009, when Stephen Bosworth, the State Department’s North Korea specialist, visited Pyongyang for a three-day trip.

The U.S. invitation to the vice foreign minister came two days after a momentum-building meeting Friday between North and South Korea’s nuclear envoys at an Asian foreign ministers’ summit in Bali, Indonesia, which Clinton also attended. The neighbors reached an agreement to push “as soon as possible” for the resumption of the six-party talks, North Korean nuclear representative Ri Yong Ho said.

South Korea’s willingness to go along with that plan was especially significant, representing a softening of policy after one of the most violent years on the peninsula. In March 2010, North Korea allegedly torpedoed a South Korean warship, killing 46. It also shelled a border-area island, killing four people, and unveiled a uranium-enrichment facility to a visiting U.S. scientist.

In recent weeks, though, U.S. officials have pushed for reengagement with North Korea, requesting that Seoul lead the way. Some officials have also expressed concern about the consequences of failing to reengage. At a hearing Thursday for Sung Kim, a nominee to become the next U.S. ambassador to Seoul, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) said, “Make no mistake: Given North Korea’s recent irresponsible conduct, staying in a diplomatic holding pattern invites a dangerous situation to get even worse.”

In recent weeks, “the U.S. has definitely put some pressure on the South Korean government about beginning talks with North Korea,” said Hong Hyeon-ik, an analyst at Seoul’s Sejong Institute who studies Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

If North Korea makes concessions on its nuclear program, it stands to gain food or economic aid at a time when a quarter of the country, according to the World Food Program, is in need of food assistance. North Korea analysts in Seoul and Washington say such desperation is largely self-inflicted; the government spends money on imported luxury cars, watches and weapons, flaunting United Nations sanctions and ignoring the needs of its people.

But leader Kim Jong Il, experts say, also has fresh incentive to improve quality of life for the non-elites: The country’s propaganda machine has promised that 2012 — the 100th anniversary of the birth of founder Kim Il Sung — will mark North Korea’s emergence as a strong and prosperous nation.

Special correspondent Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.

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