Obama will send U.S. diplomat to North Korea for direct talks

French envoy Jack Lang, left, is greeted by North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kung Sok Ung on Monday in Pyongyang.
French envoy Jack Lang, left, is greeted by North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kung Sok Ung on Monday in Pyongyang. (Kyodo News Via Associated Press)
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 10, 2009

President Obama has agreed to send a senior U.S. diplomat to North Korea for the first direct talks with the government there in more than a year, hoping the mission will lead to the renewal of multi-nation negotiations designed to end its nuclear program.

Senior administration officials said Monday that Obama decided last week to dispatch Stephen W. Bosworth, his special representative for North Korea, to Pyongyang after months of "intensive" discussions with U.S. allies in East Asia over how to reengage North Korea on its nuclear program. Although a date has not been set for the visit, senior administration officials say it probably will occur before the end of the year.

Bosworth's mission will follow Obama's first presidential visit to Asia, and conclude a year during which North Korean leader Kim Jong Il tested the new U.S. administration with a series of missile practice firings and the detonation of a nuclear device in May.

Following those tests last spring, Obama helped push through the U.N. Security Council new sanctions against North Korea. Senior administration officials said Monday that an increasingly isolated North Korean government sought the direct talks based on the administration's specific conditions.

The administration officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the decision to send Bosworth to Pyongyang has not been formally announced, said the visit will focus solely on resuming the six-nation talks to end North Korea's nuclear program, using an agreement reached by the nations in 2005 as the basis for the discussions.

North Korea also is interested in talking about resuming the search for missing U.S. servicemen and in sending the state symphony orchestra to the United States, but U.S. officials said those items will not be on the agenda.

"We have received the assurances that we sought from the North that they understood that this was the purpose," one senior administration official said, referring to resuming the talks based on the 2005 document. "I think we are realistic about what may come out of it. In the best of circumstances, they will simply agree to get back on the path they were on before the most recent provocations. But I don't think we are under any illusions that this will necessarily happen."

Then-Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill made the most recent official U.S. visit to North Korea, in September 2008. The last six-nation talks to end Pyongyang's nuclear program -- involving the United States, China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and North Korea -- were held in December 2008.

Administration officials said former president Bill Clinton's unofficial mission to Pyongyang in August to free two American journalists being detained there for allegedly entering the country illegally was "the first visible positive sign" that the North Korean government wanted to improve relations. But the officials said that North Korean diplomats have been sending private signals for some time that they want to resume diplomatic contact.

The officials said that Obama met at the Group of 20 summit in September with the leaders of Japan, Russia, South Korea and China to discuss sending Bosworth to North Korea, and that since then he has sought to maintain a united diplomatic effort to encourage Kim to return to the six-nation talks. Administration officials said that, while it is difficult to interpret what is happening inside the notoriously closed nation, the North Korean government appears to be pinched financially by the sanctions and isolated by the diplomatic effort against it.

China, in particular, has asked the Obama administration to speak directly to the North Koreans at a time when Obama is seeking China's help in pressuring Iran to give up its nuclear-enrichment program.

Last month, Wen Jiabao became the first Chinese premier to visit North Korea in 18 years, delivering a $20 million aid package to highlight Chinese-North Korean economic ties. But the administration officials said Wen also spoke with Kim about returning to the negotiating table.

"The Chinese believe it would be useful for us to have direct contacts with the North Koreans," one senior administration official said. "It's very clear that, although the Chinese encouraged us to have direct contacts, they were not encouraging us to have a bilateral negotiation. The Chinese, like the others, believe the right path is through the six-party talks."

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