Wednesday's meeting in Brunei between Secretary of State Colin Powell and North Korea's foreign minister has symbolic importance. But analysts are divided about whether it will lead to a real improvement in relations.
The 15-minute informal chat between Secretary of State Powell and North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun was the first high-level contact between the two countries since late 2000, when former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright went to Pyongyang near the end of the Clinton administration. And it was the first contact of any kind since President Bush labeled North Korea as part of an 'axis of evil' early this year.
Therefore, says Korea specialist Bill Drennan, the meeting has symbolic importance. But Mr. Drennan, the deputy director of research at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, says the meeting could lead to something even more substantial.
"The most important indication that it's got potential is going to be if they are willing to receive the delegation led by Assistant Secretary [of State] Jim Kelly who was at least penciled in to visit on July 10, but then we had that naval clash between South Korean and North Korean forces in the Yellow Sea towards the end of June," he said. "And that, coupled with the fact that North Korea had not confirmed the date, led to at least the postponement of the Kelly mission."
The author of a book about negotiating with North Korea, Leon Sigal, says holding talks is not enough. According to Mr. Sigal, who is the director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council in New York, the Bush administration does not have a clear policy on how to deal with Pyongyang, and he is pessimistic about the prospects.
"Basically the Bush administration is a divided administration, but at this point, the people who are winning are the people who are impeding serious diplomatic give and take with the North," he said. "Talks are one thing. It's nice that we have talks, but unless you're prepared to know what you want from the North and have a clear sense of the priorities and secondly are prepared to give up things in return, U.S.-DPRK [North Korea] negotiations are not going to go anywhere."
The director of Asian Studies at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, David Steinberg, agrees, saying domestic American politics are hampering progress in dealing with North Korea.
"President Bush is certainly cognizant of the right wing of the Republican Party that does not want to see improvement of relations with North Korea, that does not necessarily want to see dialogue and hopes that North Korea will simply collapse and go away and South Korea will take over," he said. "Now that's an extreme position, but that is I think reasonably widespread in that segment of the Republican Party. I think Secretary of State Powell is quite different. I think he, if he had his own way in making policy, would want to have dialogue with the North on a variety of issues."
For Mr. Drennan, at the U.S. Institute of Peace, the Bush administration is not divided on North Korea. "I think they know exactly what they want to get out of their talks, and that is a reduction of the threat posed by North Korea," he said.
The United States wants to ensure that North Korea live up to its promises in a 1994 agreement that froze its nuclear weapons program. And Washington is also concerned about North Korean missile development and exports and would like to see a reduction of conventional forces stationed on the border with the South.
Mr. Drennan notes that the Bush administration has signaled it is ready to engage in a dialogue as long as those talks lead to clear results. He says if Assistant Secretary Kelly goes to Pyongyang, he will give equal priority to nuclear proliferation concerns, the missile question as well as the need to reduce the conventional force presence on the peninsula. Mr. Drennan adds the conventional force issue has been elevated in importance by the Bush administration.
David Steinberg says the Bush administration should concentrate on the missile issue in its talks with North Korea. Secretary Albright had worked out an agreement that would have frozen the testing and production of North Korean missiles and its export of missiles and missile technology. The accord did not include verification and was not finalized before the end of the Clinton administration.
According to Leon Sigal, that's a good place to start. He is worried the United States, by giving equal weight to nuclear proliferation, missile exports and conventional force questions. expects too much in its dialogue with the North.
"The problem is if you demand everything, you'll get nothing," he said. "If you have a sequenced set of demands, and they make some sense, you may get somewhere."
In recent days, North Korea has also expressed a desire to resume separate talks with South Korea and Japan. The analysts say that does not represent a fundamental change by North Korea but instead see it as part of Pyongyang's effort to muddle through its difficult economic situation and keep its regime in power.