U.S. nuclear talks with N. Korea produce progress but no breakthrough

— The United States’ nuclear negotiations with North Korea ended Friday with “a little bit of progress” but no breakthrough, said chief U.S. negotiator Glyn Davies, who hinted that a long and slow process will determine Pyongyang’s willingness to swap its weapons program for aid.

“Diplomacy, sometimes, is a process that takes a while to work through,” Davies said.

The two-day session in Beijing, the first official U.S. contact with the North since the death Kim Jong Il, provided Washington its first clues about the thinking of hereditary heir Kim Jong Eun, the young leader whose country has both chronic food shortages and a stockpile of nuclear weapons.

Following his meeting with longtime North Korean diplomat Kim Kye Gwan, Davies said that there was “nothing stylistically or substantively dramatically different” between the policies of the father and the son. But Davies provided no details about the next steps, or whether the talks bolstered hopes for a return to multi-nation denuclearization talks.

Davies will meet with officials in Seoul on Saturday and in Tokyo on Sunday. The six-party talks — which involve the United States, Japan, China, Russia and the two Koreas — have been stalled since late 2008. Since then, the North has booted nuclear inspectors from its facilities, launched a long-range missile, tested a nuclear weapon and twice carried out attacks on the South. It also showed off a modern uranium enrichment facility, which can either create fuel for weapons or for energy.

Both the United States and the North’s neighbors have hesitated to return to the six-party talks, burned several times by denuclearization agreements that Pyongyang later ignored.

But shortly before Kim’s Dec. 17 death, Washington and Pyongyang were discussing a resumption of food aid after a three-year hiatus. The North, in turn, was prepared to announce a freeze on its uranium enrichment program.

The Obama administration, though, is skeptical that the North will carry out such promises. Pyongyang has frequently described its nuclear program as a pillar of its security, and the country’s propaganda machine often equates the weapons with national strength.

Several times during the meeting, North Korean negotiators specifically mentioned Kim Jong Eun by name, as if to emphasize that the new leader approves of the talks. U.S. negotiators made a point about Burma, a country that has rapidly liberalized in the last year, telling North Korea that Washington welcomes a better relationship if Pyongyang choses to reform.

Security experts say that the U.S. officials face a delicate balance in talking with the North, because they must provide just enough incentive to keep Pyongyang interested in talks. So long as the United States maintains communication with the isolated authoritarian country, the North’s leadership is less likely to cause chaos in the region, launching weapons or carrying out attacks.

But if the talks lead nowhere, the North could lose interest in deal-making and back away. If the talks do produce a deal, the North could still ignore it — an embarrassment for U.S. diplomats who have seen their predecessors make the same mistake.

“That’s the reason the U.S. has no incentive to strike a deal that is anything less than ironclad,” said Brad Glosserman, executive director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Hawaii. “The lesson the Americans have learned is, don’t buy the same horse three or four or five times.”

Chico Harlan covers personal economics as part of The Post's financial team.

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