North Korea's agreement to return to the six-nation disarmament talks was something of a surprise, coming less than a month after it conducted its first nuclear weapons test. Another surprise was that a U.S. representative met directly with a North Korean official on the issue. As VOA correspondent Gary Thomas reports, China's role is seen as crucial to the turn in events.
For months, the Bush Administration rejected North Korea's demand for direct talks, even after the North Koreans detonated a nuclear weapon last month.
President Bush has repeatedly insisted that any discussions with North Korea would have to be under the auspices of the suspended six-party talks with the United States, North Korea, China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan as participants.
But on Tuesday, a U.S. diplomat sat down with a North Korean official in Beijing in a meeting arranged under Chinese auspices. President Bush maintained Wednesday that the United States was still holding to a multilateral approach to North Korea.
He said, "I'm pleased, and I want to thank the Chinese for encouraging the meeting that got the agreement to get the six-party talks restarted. I've always felt like it is important for the United States to be at the table with other partners when it comes time to addressing this important issue."
Paul Pillar, a former senior U.S. intelligence officer, says that the U.S.-North Korean meeting was really kind of a compromise.
"So this was a forum that was something in between the insistent North Korean demand to have strictly bilateral talks with the United States, and the U.S. demand that we would talk in nothing other than the six-party forums. Here we had effectively a three-party foru." he said.
Jon Wolfstahl, a former Department of Energy counter-proliferation official who was a nuclear inspector in North Korea, said U.S. flexibility helped bring about the North Korean change.
He said, "I think that the U.S.' willingness to show some flexibility also brought about part of this change. The U.S. had been saying that we would never meet bilaterally with the North Koreans. In fact, we did just that under the Chinese auspices and that helped bring about this change."
As North Korea's neighbor and closest ally, China has unique leverage over Pyongyang. Paul Pillar says it was Chinese pressure that was key.
"That the Chinese had very heavy involvement in these talks that took place in Beijing, and, secondly, the fact that the North Koreans have backed off seemingly from their previous position and are now willing to go back to the six party talks, suggest that China since the nuclear test by the North Koreans is exerting more direct pressure on North Korea. And clearly if you had to identify any one country that was key to this North Korean problem, it's China," he said.
Just what the pressure points were is not publicly known. But analysts believe North Korea relies on China for up to 90 percent of its oil and perhaps a third of its food. China sent no crude oil at all to North Korea in September, according to China's own figures. This was before North Korea's nuclear test, but after Pyongyang test fired new ballistic missiles in July despite Chinese pleas for restraint.
"The other thing we'll to have to watch very carefully is exactly what kind of posture the Chinese are maintaining toward North Korea, just how much Beijing is willing to play hardball with the North Koreans on things like oil exports and everything else. We are not flies on the wall in rooms where conversations have taken place between Chinese and North Korean officials. But one can at least find some basis for optimism.
Jon Wolfstahl adds that there is one country that will also be watching the developments with North Korea very carefully: Iran.
He said, "I think that it sends a very dangerous message to Iran. Here we have North Korea having tested a nuclear weapon, and bringing about a modification, even a softening, of America's position, and a willingness to negotiate. And I think that Iran is going to potentially look at that and see, 'if we develop a nuclear weapon, we're not really going to be punished, and in fact might even be able to negotiate from a position of strength.'"
U.S. officials say that if all goes well, they expect the six party talks to resume within the next few months.