WASHINGTON — Raising hopes for a new era of rapprochement with nuclear-armed North Korea, the Obama administration said Wednesday it would sit down with the reclusive regime for a fresh round of atomic weapons talks and appoint a full-time envoy with the task of convincing Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program.
Disarmament efforts are saddled with a history of deceit and mistrust, but the meetings on Monday and Tuesday in Geneva represent another step forward after last year's military attacks on South Korea that led to threats of war. They are the second set of nuclear discussions between the United States and North Korea since July, after a three-year freeze in diplomacy.
"We're looking for more progress," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in Washington. "We want to see a seriousness of purpose and a commitment to moving this process forward to taking the steps that they've already committed to take."
As Washington intensifies its engagement of Pyongyang, it is turning to seasoned diplomat Glyn Davies to lead the efforts. Davies, the U.S. ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, will replace Stephen Bosworth, though both will be meeting next week with the North Korean delegation led by Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan.
Bosworth will introduce Davies to the North Korean delegation, and Toner said the United States would ensure a "seamless transition" in guiding the U.S. policy toward North Korea. This is a change in personnel, not in policy," he said.
A respected career diplomat, Davies will commit to the job full-time. Prior to serving at the IAEA, he held a senior position in the State Department's bureau of East Asian and Pacific affairs and was the agency's deputy spokesman under President Bill Clinton.
The United States and its ally South Korea are pressing familiar demands. Toner said the United States wants North Korea to adhere to a 2005 agreement it later reneged on, which required the North's verifiable denuclearization in exchange for better relations with its Asian neighbors, energy assistance and a pledge from Washington that it wouldn't attack the isolated country. The United States and North Korea are still formally at war, having only signed an armistice ending their 1950-53 conflict.
To demonstrate its seriousness, American officials want Pyongyang to take concrete steps such as freezing its uranium and plutonium programs and allowing IAEA inspectors back into the country. They are also looking for the North to show that it won't launch any new military actions against South Korea, or further nuclear or missile tests.
The bilateral nuclear talks are an attempt to restart broader, six-nation disarmament-for-aid negotiations that Pyongyang pulled out of in April 2009 after being censured for launching a long-range missile. The North then conducted its second-ever nuclear test and, late last year, unveiled a uranium enrichment program that could give it another means of generating fissile material for nuclear bombs.
Tensions also spiked last year after South Korea was attacked twice militarily, including the sinking of a submarine that was blamed on the North and killed 46 sailors.
This year, the United States and South Korea have offered the North another chance. But they are insisting that six-nation talks — which also include North Korean ally China as well as Russia and Japan — cannot resume unless the regime shows it is ready to abandon its nuclear weapons arsenal.
It appears unlikely the regime would agree to give up its nuclear weapons, despite its perilous economic situation and need for aid. But engaging the North may serve to forestall another military provocation or a nuclear test — the kind of security crisis Obama would likely want to avoid as he enters an election year. In a separate engagement effort, the United States also has reopened talks with North Korea on cooperative searches for the remains of U.S. troops killed in the Korean War. This is a topic that Pyongyang sees as a humanitarian gesture and that Washington has periodically embraced as a means of improving relations.
A U.S. delegation led by the Pentagon's top POW/MIA official began talks Tuesday with the North Koreans on how and when to resume searches for what the Pentagon estimates are 5,500 U.S. servicemen unaccounted for on North Korean soil.