SEOUL - On Saturday, North Korean and U.S. officials are scheduled to hold their first working-level nuclear talks since February.
It’s not known where the negotiations will occur, or what proposals will be discussed.
But here are some of the key questions surrounding the talks, which come after months of delays by North Korea.
Is the US open to a step-by-step process?
Talks broke down in February when U.S. President Donald Trump rejected North Korea’s offer to dismantle a key nuclear complex in exchange for significant sanctions relief.
Instead, Trump said he wants a “big deal,” in which North Korean leader Kim Jong Un vows to give up all his nukes before receiving any major concessions.
Many U.S. officials say North Korea has in the past exploited a more incremental approach — as part of a cycle of provocation, de-escalation, and negotiation — to obtain valuable concessions from the United States without fulfilling its end of the deal.
But it’s not clear how to advance such a complex and lengthy denuclearization process if not in stages, says Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
The main U.S. objective, Easley says, should be to secure a deal that includes a “negotiated roadmap and verification mechanisms for progressing from stage to stage.”
For example, a deal “that trades sanctions relief for a freeze in the production of nuclear material makes sense if it allows for international inspectors on the ground and includes sanctions snapback provisions in case North Korea is caught cheating,” he says.
But U.S. officials have provided no clear, public indication they are interested in an incremental deal.
What does North Korea want?
North Korea has repeatedly said it will not unilaterally give up its nuclear weapons without significant concessions from the United States.
Earlier this year, North Korea’s focus was negotiating for the removal of five United Nations sanctions that have hurt the country’s economy.
But in recent months, North Korean officials have hinted that receiving security guarantees was also a top priority. For instance, the North could demand an end to U.S.-South Korea military exercises or major modifications to the U.S. military posture in the region.
Rachel Minyoung Lee, a Seoul-based analyst at NK News, says North Korean negotiators will likely be “trying to find out how much they can gain out of the United States without giving up everything.”
“I do feel that the talks won't get very far if the North Koreans feel there has not been a fundamental shift in the U.S. position,” she says.
But U.S. officials have said very little about what they are prepared to offer, or at what point along the denuclearization process they are willing to implement those concessions.
Has either side softened their negotiating positions?
Not explicitly, though Trump has given indications that he wants to find common ground.
Last month, Trump fired White House National Security Adviser John Bolton, a longtime nemesis of North Korea. While defending the move, Trump specifically cited Bolton’s hawkish approach to Pyongyang.
Trump also raised eyebrows when he recently spoke of the need for a “new method” to the negotiations. That closely mirrors the language Pyongyang has used in calling for the United States to take a more conciliatory approach. But no one knows what “new method” Trump has in mind.
North Korea potentially re-enters the talks with more leverage, after conducting 11 rounds of short-range ballistic missile launches since May. The launches have involved tests of several new weapons systems that provide a deadly threat to the U.S. and its allies in the region.
Will North Korea continue to fire missiles during the talks?
So far, North Korea has showed no signs of stopping. On Wednesday, North Korea tested what appears to be a medium-range ballistic missile that was designed to be launched from a submarine — demonstrating a new and unpredictable component in Pyongyang’s arsenal.
Trump shrugged off the previous launches as “short-range,” noting many countries conduct such tests. North Korea may want to take advantage of Trump’s indifference to its launches, seeing it as a chance to effectively weaken U.N. Security Council resolutions that ban Pyongyang’s ballistic missile activity.
“They see a golden opportunity to normalize these shorter-range missile launches even while negotiations are ongoing,” says Mintaro Oba, a former U.S. diplomat focused on the Koreas.
There’s always a chance Trump will eventually lose patience with Kim’s provocations and call off the talks. But so far, the president has drawn the line at long-range missile or nuclear tests.
How will U.S. domestic politics impact the talks?
Trump faces increasing pressure at home — both from a recently opened impeachment inquiry and an upcoming presidential election.
Some analysts have said Trump may feel pressure to make a deal with North Korea in order to deflect attention from his domestic troubles or to secure a foreign policy win ahead of the 2020 vote.
However, there’s good reason to be skeptical of that notion, says Bong Young-shik with Yonsei University's Institute for North Korean Studies.
“A ‘foreign policy achievement’ is very fluid to define. Trump can spin it any way he likes and still claim that he has achieved a lot,” says Bong. And as Bong points out, foreign policy issues rarely are decisive factors in a presidential election.
But Trump still likely wants to reinforce a positive image on foreign policy ahead of the election, says Oba, the former diplomat.
“That’s always been the case and North Korea has always been linked to that. And maybe the heightened tension over impeachment makes him feel more urgently that he wants to demonstrate success with North Korea,” he says.
There’s also a question of whether time is running out to secure or implement a nuclear deal, since Trump will likely soon dedicate more of his time to his reelection campaign.
What role will South Korea play?
South Korea’s progressive government desperately wants to improve ties with the North. But U.S. and international sanctions have prevented the South from moving ahead with economic and other projects meant to improve North-South relations.
Meanwhile, North Korea has blamed the South for the impasse, lashing out angrily at the resumption of joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises and Seoul’s purchase of advanced weapons from Washington.
North Korea has also rejected South Korea’s role as a go-between in the nuclear talks, slamming South Korean President Moon Jae-in as a “meddlesome mediator.”
Still, South Korea has welcomed news that the United States and North Korea will resume working-level negotiations, saying the talks are evidence the talks are progressing.
South Korea’s National Intelligence Service last week even held out hope Kim will visit the South Korean coastal city of Busan in November for a meeting of Southeast Asian countries.
That would be the first ever visit by a North Korean leader to the South, beyond the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas. North Korea has neither confirmed nor even commented on the idea of such a visit.