BEIJING — Envoys from North Korea and a cautiously optimistic United States met Thursday for their first talks on dismantling Pyongyang’s nuclear programs since the death of the North’s longtime leader Kim Jong Il.
The discussions could provide signs of whether North Korea’s new government is ready to agree to steps demanded by Washington and Pyongyang’s neighbors to restart broader international disarmament talks, which are meant to provide aid and diplomatic concessions in return for the North abandoning its nuclear weapons programs.
Kim’s Dec. 17 death upended a deal between the United States and North Korea where Pyongyang would have suspended its uranium enrichment in return for food aid from Washington. The meetings in Beijing may provide a glimpse of North Korea’s goals under new leader Kim Jong Un, who has vowed to follow his father’s policies.
“Today is, as we say, ’game day.’ We will have an opportunity to meet with First Vice Foreign Minister Kim and his team,” U.S. envoy Glyn Davies said before the start of talks with his counterpart Kim Kye Gwan.
The two met for 2-1/2 hours at the North Korean Embassy in Beijing on Thursday morning, and then later started an afternoon session at the U.S. Embassy.
The talks in Beijing, the third round since July, are aimed at restarting wider six-nation nuclear disarmament negotiations that also involve China, Japan, Russia and South Korea. Pyongyang walked away from those talks in 2009 and later exploded its second nuclear device.
Additional steps may still be needed before a resumption of the six-nation talks. The North may first request food shipments, while the U.S. and its allies want assurances Pyongyang is committed to making progress on past nuclear commitments.
The United States has also said that better ties between North Korea and U.S. ally South Korea are crucial. North Korea has rejected South Korean offers to talk in recent weeks, and animosity between the rivals still lingers from violence in 2010: a North Korean artillery attack in November killed four South Koreans on a front-line island, and Seoul blames North Korea for the sinking of a warship that killed 46 sailors earlier that year. Pyongyang denies sinking the ship and says a South Korean live-fire drill provoked the artillery attack.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in Washington that the United States was “cautiously optimistic” about the talks.
The six-nation talks, once restarted, would be aimed at dismantling North Korea’s remaining nuclear programs in exchange for what would likely involve even greater donations of aid.
Toner said food assistance would be discussed in the talks, but that the United States has some concerns it wants North Korea to address. He did not say what those concerns were, but analysts have said North Korea must agree to have U.N. watchdogs monitor any freeze of its uranium enrichment. Otherwise it could backtrack — as it has done with previous agreements.
Worries about North Korea’s nuclear capability took on renewed urgency in November 2010 when the country disclosed a uranium enrichment facility that could give it a second route to manufacture nuclear weapons, in addition to its existing plutonium-based program.
As the envoys began their talks, North Korea’s state media criticized next month’s Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, which is expected to draw dozens of world leaders, including President Barack Obama, to discuss nuclear terrorism and safety.
“It is illogical to discuss the ’nuclear security’ issue in South Korea, the U.S. nuclear advance base and a hotbed of nuclear war,” the North’s official Korean Central News Agency said in a commentary Thursday.