U.S. envoy's N. Korea trip brings no commitment on nuclear talks

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 11, 2009

SEOUL -- President Obama's envoy to North Korea said Thursday that his journey to Pyongyang produced no commitment that the North would return to international talks aimed at ridding the country of nuclear weapons.

But Stephen W. Bosworth, after a three-day visit that marked the first high-level contact between the Obama administration and the government of Kim Jong Il, said his conversations had established a "common understanding" of the need for negotiations.

"It remains to be seen when and how [North Korea] will return," Bosworth said, adding that "this is something that will require further consultations among all six" of the countries involved in Beijing-based nuclear talks. Those countries are the two Koreas, the United States, Japan, China and Russia.

Bosworth traveled to Pyongyang after Kim sent signals through China and other diplomatic channels that his government might be willing to return to the talks it abandoned last spring, after asserting that they had become a vehicle for regime change.

A condition of North Korea's return to negotiations, as determined by Chinese officials in meetings this fall in Pyongyang, was direct high-level contact with the Obama administration.

Yet even as Bosworth headed for North Korea this week, Obama administration officials were cautioning that they had received no guarantee that Pyongyang would return to the often-stalled six-party talks.

Expectations, however, had been raised in Seoul and Tokyo that the U.S. special envoy would not press ahead with a highly publicized visit without some assurances of a substantial result.

Bosworth, though, had little of substance to announce during a 15-minute news conference in Seoul. He said he did not meet -- and did not ask to meet -- with the North Korean leader.

Kim, 67, is thought to have suffered a stroke in August 2008 but has since recovered and is believed by U.S. officials to be firmly back in control.

The "Dear Leader," as he is known in the North, was reportedly out of Pyongyang during at least part of Bosworth's visit. He was busy giving "field guidance" at a stock farm and a tractor plant, state media reported.

"It is important to point out that these were exploratory talks, not negotiations," Bosworth told reporters.

Still, Bosworth said that he and the North Korean officials he met -- the most senior of whom were Vice Foreign Minister Kang Sok Ju and senior nuclear envoy Kim Gye Gwan -- had no discussions about future meetings.

The visit punctuates a strange and tension-filled year on the Korean Peninsula. During the spring and summer, 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.

In August, however, it released two detained American journalists to former president Bill Clinton, who had flown to Pyongyang after obtaining commitments that the journalists would be freed. The North also warmed up to South Korea this fall, restarting a program that allows visits between relatives long separated by the Korean War and removing obstacles to trade.

North Korea, an impoverished state with chronic food shortages, had a poor autumn harvest and is again on the brink of serious food shortages. Analysts speculate that a need for international food aid might be motivating North Korea to return to nuclear talks. The United States has been the largest donor of food aid to the North.

In the past, the United States has often rewarded North Korea with food, fuel or diplomatic concessions in return for refraining from bad behavior.

This time, though, Obama administration officials have maintained that they would offer North Korea no rewards for merely "going back to doing something that it had previously committed to do."

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