U.S. special envoy Stephen Bosworth heading to North Korea for talks

By Jean H. Lee
Tuesday, December 8, 2009

SEOUL -- After a year of tensions, President Obama is sending a veteran diplomat to North Korea on Tuesday for the highest-profile talks between Pyongyang and Washington since he took office pledging to reach out to America's adversaries.

A key question is whether special envoy Stephen W. Bosworth can extract a firm commitment from Pyongyang to rejoin nuclear disarmament talks it abandoned this year -- whether North Korea is serious, this time, about peace on the peninsula.

Bosworth is scheduled to fly Tuesday from a U.S. military base near Seoul to the North Korean capital. Neither side has said which North Korean officials Bosworth will meet during his three-day trip, though he is widely expected to sit down with Kang Sok Ju, the first vice foreign minister, who is considered reclusive leader Kim Jong Il's chief foreign policy strategist.

"The main question is whether Bosworth will meet with Chairman Kim Jong Il," said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Seoul's Dongguk University. "Such a meeting would demonstrate that both the U.S. and North Korea intend to resolve the nuclear issue."

On Monday, U.S. officials would say only that the North had promised high-level meetings for Bosworth. The State Department, briefing reporters ahead of his trip, said he has a narrow mission -- to find out whether the North would return to the stalled international disarmament talks -- and will be carrying no inducements meant to lure the North back to the negotiating table. While Chinese and North Korean officials have suggested that Pyongyang might be willing to return, U.S. officials maintained that Bosworth does not know what the North will decide.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters Monday she hopes that Bosworth will be successful in persuading the North Koreans to return to the nuclear talks and that the North will work for "a new set of relationships with us and with our partners."

This week's talks are the first direct U.S.-North Korean talks since Obama took office in January. They come after a year of threatening rhetoric and rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

The two Koreas remain in a state of war, their border guarded by hundreds of thousands of troops, because their three-year conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, in 1953.

Whereas democratic South Korea strives to become a global player and has the world's 15th-largest economy, communist North Korea has retreated into isolation, with dwindling sources of aid in the post-Soviet era and few trading partners.

Pyongyang says it needs nuclear bombs to counter the strong U.S. military presence in South Korea. The impoverished country has also used the atomic threat to finagle aid and other concessions from regional powers wary of the unpredictable neighbor.

Fifteen years ago, Kang, the chief strategist, negotiated an agreement with Washington to freeze Pyongyang's nuclear facilities in return for two light-water reactors safer for producing electricity.

That pact fell apart in 2002 after then-Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly said the North Koreans admitted having a secret uranium-enrichment program.

The North denied the allegation. Then it withdrew from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and restarted its nuclear facilities, touching off an atomic crisis that led to the creation of broader, six-nation disarmament talks.

The six-nation talks -- hosted by China and involving both Koreas, Japan, Russia and the United States -- yielded a 2005 deal calling on North Korea to abandon its nuclear program in exchange for aid and other security guarantees.

Months later, however, North Korea launched a long-range missile and conducted its first nuclear test.

-- Associated Press

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