TOKYO — The United States and North Korea held “substantive and serious” nuclear talks Thursday and concluded the six-hour meeting with an agreement to get together again Friday, U.S. chief negotiator Glyn Davies said.
The talks, held at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, mark the first substantial contact between the two nations since the Dec. 17 death of leader Kim Jong Il and could offer Washington much-needed insight on whether Kim’s son and heir is willing to accept food aid in exchange for denuclearization.
Davies said before the meeting with North Korea’s vice foreign minister, Kim Gye Gwan, that he was “interested in trying to find out what the new leadership in North Korea is prepared to do — and I think that’s what is important about this diplomatic process that we’re engaging in.”
Days before Kim’s death, the United States and North Korea were near a breakthrough, according to U.S. officials briefed on the talks. The Obama administration planned to resume food shipments as a carrot to secure a freeze on uranium enrichment.
But Kim’s death reset the negotiations as North Korea refocused on pressing domestic concerns: mourning its Dear Leader, boosting support for successor Kim Jong Eun and calculating whether its uranium-enrichment program represents a trading card or a necessary security pillar during a period of vulnerability.
Diplomats see the U.S.-North Korea talks, if they go well, as the first step in a potential return to the multination nuclear talks aimed at persuading Pyongyang to freeze its weapons program. But the six-party process has been dormant for three years for good reason: Few trust that it will work.
North Korea has pledged several times to give up its weapons, only to backtrack after receiving aid and energy shipments. Such broken promises, coupled with Pyongyang’s repeated vows to develop nuclear weapons, have fostered skepticism within the Obama administration that the talks can ever fulfill their purpose.
Experts in Washington say the goals of engagement are now more modest. In addition to providing a sense of the North Korean leadership’s thinking, talks are viewed as lessening the chance that the North will lash out by testing a nuclear weapon, launching a long-range missile or, as it did twice in 2010, carrying out a military attack on South Korea.
“It makes sense to talk to the North Koreans, particularly now,” said Mike Green, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former adviser to President George W. Bush. “I know from experience, a lot of intelligence comes out of contact with them. So at a time of potentially important change — potentially — you want to take the pulse.”