A senior U.S. official plans to meet with North Korean officials next week in New York, with the goal of planning more meetings in Pyongyang. Analysts wonder if North Korea has agreed to resume a stalled dialogue with the United States because of the Bush administration's tough language about the North, or in spite of it.
Presidential envoy Jack Pritchard said the New York talks are intended to arrange for a possible trip to Pyongyang, perhaps as early as next month. This would be the first substantive contact between the United States and North Korea since President Bush took office in January last year.
During the Clinton administration, Washington and Pyongyang were holding talks about halting North Korea's missile production, and the two sides were moving slowly toward establishing liason offices in each other's capital.
When President Bush came to office, his administration began a review of U.S. policy toward North Korea, and he made statements that some interpreted to mean he might not continue the dialogue begun during the Clinton administration. Since then, the administration has clarified its position, saying it is willing to hold talks anytime, anywhere with the North. But President Bush has also identified North Korea as a member of "an evil axis" of countries, including Iran and Iraq, that want to develop weapons of mass destruction.
North Korea has reacted angrily to the perceived tough line taken by the Bush administration. Pyongyang has threatened to abandon its moratorium on missile tests, and it has accused the United States of renegging on the 1994 agreed framework that froze North Korea's nuclear program.
The United States has said it is abiding by that agreement but adds the North is in danger of not complying because it has not allowed the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect additional suspected nuclear sites.
Ambassador Robert Gallucci, who led the U.S. team that negotiated the 1994 document, says North Korean officials told him they will comply with IAEA requirements after the United States and its allies, Japan and South Korea, fulfill their part of the deal. And Mr. Gallucci said that North Korea's position does not go against the accord.
Ambassador Gallucci, now dean of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, said the Bush administration's tough line toward Pyongyang may have prompted the North to return to the table on other areas of concern, such as missiles and reducing tension with the South. "It is possible the North Koreans are looking at the United States - the very tough posture the administration has adopted, no carrots and possible sticks - and having a certain amount of concern, given the robust character of American military capability most recently demonstrated in Afghanistan, [and] finding themselves in a position of desperation, putting these two things together, and they have decided that under these circumstances, they will talk to the United States, they will talk to South Korea and we have these talks," Ambassador Gallucci said. To critics of engagement with North Korea, both inside and outside the U.S. administration, Ambassador Gallucci said it is better to be involved in negotiations with Pyongyang in order to resolve issues that arise - whether that may be secret nuclear facilities, missile testing and proliferation, or conventional force problems.
Korea specialist Leon Sigal said he does not expect significant results from a resumption of the U.S.-North Korean dialogue. The real momentum, he said, will be in the talks between the North and South.
"Convinced that it was getting nowhere with Washington, the North changed course last September and resumed ministerial level talks with the South, which opens the way for a return visit to Seoul by Kim Jong-il this year," he said. "That is an important shift for Pyongyang, which for the past decade engaged seriously with Seoul only when it was sure Washington was cooperating as well. And so I would pay attention very closely to North-South."
South Korean special envoy Lim Dong-won visited Pyongyang last week. Mr. Lim has said he hopes to negotiate a resumption of reunions betwen divided family members and the construction of an inter-Korean railway.
Mr. Sigal, director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project in New York, said North Korea knows it cannot get far in its talks with the United States. But he said the North also knows that in order to make progress with Seoul, it must at least be at the table with Washington.