U.S. envoy Stephen Bosworth arrives in North Korea for talks

By Blaine Harden
Wednesday, December 9, 2009

SEOUL -- President Obama's special envoy to North Korea traveled Tuesday to Pyongyang to find out whether the North Koreans, after a long bout of provocative behavior, are willing to return to international talks aimed at dismantling their nuclear weapons.

Bearing no offers of aid, envoy Stephen W. Bosworth began the highest-level contact between the Obama administration and North Korea. His "narrow" mission, as described by a senior administration official, is to determine whether the government of Kim Jong Il will reaffirm its four-year-old commitment to getting rid of nuclear arms and come back to six-nation negotiations in Beijing.

North Korea abandoned those talks this year, saying they had become a vehicle for overthrowing its government. That was during a spring and summer season of wildly confrontational behavior and bellicose rhetoric, as the North exploded a nuclear device, tested a long-range intercontinental missile, expelled international weapons inspectors, restarted its plutonium factory and made repeated threats of "all-out war" against South Korea.

Since late summer, however, North Korea has calmed down and sent signals that it might rejoin talks on denuclearization. But where those talks could go remains highly problematic, as North Korea has made clear that it has no intention of giving up its nuclear arsenal, which makes it a player on the world stage. Without those weapons, many analysts say, North Korea is merely a desperately poor state with a remarkably repressive government.

Also complicating Bosworth's mission in the North is the United States' long history of paying North Korea -- with food, fuel and diplomatic concessions -- whenever it decides to return to talks aimed at controlling its missile or nuclear ambitions. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush traded food for talks with North Korea at least 13 times.

Once again, the chronically hungry North appears to be heading toward a serious food shortage. A food crisis is expected in the spring, if estimates of a poor harvest are accurate, the South Korean government said last month. More than a third of North Korea's 22.5 million people are malnourished, U.N. officials say.

The Obama administration, however, says it is offering no food or "reward" as part of Bosworth's mission.

"We don't intend to reward North Korea simply for going back to doing something that it had previously committed to do," a senior administration official said in a briefing. The official added that if the North does return to the talks and "proceeds with denuclearization," it could receive considerable international assistance.

Bosworth traveled to Pyongyang, the official said, because the North has sent signals that it might rejoin talks with China, Russia, Japan, South Korea and the United States. Pyongyang also made clear that before North Korean officials would return to Beijing for talks, they wanted one-on-one negotiations with the Americans.

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