News / Asia

US, N. Korea Tentative About Future Relations

There are still more questions than answers about what comes next for North Korea, as the communist nation mourns the death of long-time leader Kim Jong Il.  One question increasingly on the minds of some analysts: Is the United States missing a chance to make critical inroads with the new regime?

Flags fly at half-staff in North Korea, as North Koreans publicly grieve.

What has been missing so far, any official offer of condolences from the United States.  And State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland made clear earlier this week, no such statement will be coming.

"With regard to the 'C word,' I think we didn't consider it appropriate in this case," said Nuland.

The U.S. did issue a statement that Nuland described as a signal of Washington's "expectations and hopes for the new regime."

But is that enough?

Former US Representative for North Korea Stephen Bosworth says maybe, or maybe not.

"North Korea makes decisions on what it’s going to negotiate, or how it’s going to negotiate, what it’s going to give up, in terms of demands, very much based on their own perception of their self-interest," said Bosworth.

The U.S. officially expressed its condolences to North Korea in 1994, when Kim Jong Il's father, Kim Il Sung, died.  Bosworth says that may have helped ease tensions for a while.  

Pyongyang signed onto the so-called "Framework Agreement," freezing its nuclear programs just a few months later.

But any gains quickly disappeared.  North Korea has continued to pursue nuclear weapons while stoking tensions with South Korea.  

Just last year, North Korea launched an unprovoked attack on a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors.  A few months later, it shelled South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island, killing four.

In addition to Pyongyang's erratic behavior, there are also political considerations for the U.S., especially as it heads into an election year.

Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage says the U.S. needs to be careful it does not give Pyongyang too much room to maneuver.

"It makes us look weak and them look strong," said Armitage.  "I think the better part of wisdom is to keep our powder dry, take a deep breath and watch carefully."

For now, it seems what happens next will be in the hands of Kim Jong Il's youngest son, Kim Jong Un - a man who like his country, is a mystery to many on the outside.

Jeff Seldin

Jeff works out of VOA’s Washington headquarters and is national security correspondent. You can follow Jeff on Twitter at @jseldin or on Google Plus.

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