WASHINGTON — The United States said Monday it would send a senior envoy next week to Beijing for talks with North Korea on its nuclear program, in the first substantive contact since leader Kim Jong-Il died.
Resuming a dialogue that was called off after Kim died on December 17, Glyn Davies, the coordinator for US policy in North Korea, will meet on February 23 with veteran North Korean negotiator Kim Kye-Gwan, the State Department said.
The United States has been exploring a resumption of six-nation denuclearization talks with North Korea but has insisted that Pyongyang respect a 2005 agreement at the talks to give up its atomic weapons.
"The question is whether they are prepared to respond to what we are looking for in order to get back to talks. So that's what we're looking to find out in Beijing," Nuland told reporters.
Nuland said Washington sought signals from North Korea on whether "it is prepared to fulfill its commitment" under six-way talks and "its international obligations as well as to take concrete steps towards denuclearization."
The United States held two rounds of talks with North Korea last year in New York and Geneva in hopes of keeping open a dialogue, despite deep skepticism in Washington on whether the communist state will ever give up its weapons.
A third round was ready in Beijing in December but was postponed after the sudden death of Kim, which left the isolated and nuclear-armed country in the hands of his untested young son Kim Jong-Un.
Scott Snyder, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that North Korea had been eager to resume discussions with the United States, in part to show that the regime is operating as it was before Kim Jong-Il's death.
"One can infer that the North Koreans, by indicating a willingness to resume the talks, believe that they are following a path characterized by continuity -- or at least that's what they want to project to the outside," Snyder said.
"What we don't know is what they are prepared to talk about," he added, amid low expectations in Washington for any breakthroughs with the North.
Before the planned last round, the United States had been discussing a request to resume food assistance. North Korea suffered a devastating famine in the 1990s and aid groups have voiced concern about new shortages.
However, Nuland said that the primary focus of next week's talks would be on the nuclear program. Robert King, the US envoy on human rights in North Korea who visited the country last year to discuss food aid, will not go to Beijing.
The United States has insisted on strict monitoring of shipments and of limiting aid to items such as baby food that cannot easily be diverted to the military or leadership, according to diplomats.
Stephen Bosworth, who was Davies' predecessor and took part in last year's talks with North Korea, recently said that the regime was more collective than thought. He doubted that leaders would give Kim Jong-Un full authority.
"I do not believe that North Korea's engaged in a collective suicide mission," he said last month at the Asia Society in New York.
The six-way talks include China, Japan, the two Koreas, Russia and the United States. North Korea bolted from the talks in 2009 due to what it described as US hostility, but has since called for their resumption.
China, the North's main ally, has also supported a return to talks.
The State Department announcement came shortly before Xi Jinping, China's vice president and likely next leader, arrived in Washington for a closely watched visit.
The United States has repeatedly said North Korea must improve relations with the South before any substantive dialogue. Pyongyang in 2010 shelled an island in the South and was accused of torpedoing a warship, incidents that killed 50 people in total.
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