SEOUL // Direct talks between the United States and North Korea in Pyongyang last week were meant as an opportunity to size each other up rather than accomplish any major agreement, analysts say, and to that end were a good step forward.
Now, the task ahead for the United States, observers said, was two-fold: figure out how to draw a concrete working map to prod North Korea to commit to denuclearisation and how to placate South Korea, which is ambiguously watching the new détente between Washington and its archrival. Stephen Bosworth, the US president Barack Obama's special representative for North Korea policy, completed a three-day visit to Pyongyang last week, summing up the trip as "very useful".
In Pyongyang, Mr Bosworth met North Korea's chief nuclear negotiator, Kim Kye Gwan, and Kang Sok Ju, a confidant of North Korea's paramount leader, Kim Jong Il. Details however, were kept secret. North Korea stopped short of making a firm commitment to return to the negotiating table, but its reaction raised hopes that the disarmament process could resume. "This may be the time to exercise strategic patience," Mr Bosworth told reporters in Beijing yesterday. "Everyone, including North Korea, may need to sit quietly for a bit and see what happens." On Thursday, North Korea's foreign ministry said: "Both sides feel the need for the resumption of the six-party talks." Both also "agreed to continue to co-operate with each other to narrow their differences".
Overall, analysts characterised the meeting as a "good start". "The meeting was not meant to resolve major issues, but to open a dialogue," said Kim Keun-sik, a professor of politics and diplomacy at Kyungnam University in Seoul. Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul, agreed. "The two sides created a momentum for further dialogue and agreed on the need for the resumption of the six-party talks and the dialogue for a peace treaty," he said.
The six-party talks are a multilateral negotiation platform, hosted by China since 2003, to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear drive. Besides the United States, North Korea and China, the other participants are South Korea, Russia and Japan. In April, North Korea walked away from the talks, vowing never to return, after the international community condemned a long-range rocket launch the North claimed was meant to serve as scientific space research, but which Washington and its allies saw as a long-range missile test in disguise.
Sceptics see the bilateral meeting, which produced no joint statement or any major diplomatic agreement, as another futile diplomatic ritual the two adversaries repeat periodically. Worse, Mr Bosworth said, the two countries did not set a date for another meeting. Prof Kim of Kyungnam University brushed aside the pessimism. "I believe Bosworth's remark was more of a diplomatic statement. I think they actually must have some understanding on this matter," he said.
Reading deeper into Mr Bosworth's statement, Chung Young-chul, a North Korea expert at Sogang University in Seoul, said: "The fact that Mr Bosworth didn't say anything negative about the talks itself is a positive signal." Analysts said Mr Bosworth, a veteran diplomat and a former US ambassador to South Korea, was making a judicious appearance of saving words on the outcome of the talks so as not to draw the attention of hawks in Washington, who frown on US engagement with North Korea.
That diplomatic move was meant for the South Korean audience as well. Lee Myung-bak, who was elected president of South Korea, vowing to stand tough on its rival, North Korea, is watching the new détente between North Korea and the United States with ambivalence. Mr Lee's supporters claim that the previous liberal administrations had launched a naïve crusade of reconciliation towards the unreliable North, offering massive economic aid, only to be cheated when it secretly improved its nuclear arsenals with aid funds from the South. They called the time under the reconciliation-minded presidents, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Tae-woo, "a lost decade".
"Overall, the Lee administration supports the meeting," Prof Kim of Dongguk University said. "But they also fear whether there was any under-the-rug agreement between the US and North Korea." To reassure its Asian ally, Mr Bosworth used an US air base in South Korea as a gateway to Pyongyang and gave his first debriefing to South Korean officials upon returning from North Korea. One hot issue was whether Mr Bosworth carried a personal letter from Mr Obama to North Korea. When asked about it at the Thursday press briefing in Seoul, Mr Bosworth said he "couldn't comment". Yesterday, citing a Washington diplomatic source, Radio Free Asia reported that Mr Bosworth had delivered a personal letter from Mr Obama to the North Korean leadership.
Analysts say Mr Bosworth is saving his words, as he faces a delicate task of not just negotiating with North Korea but placating Washington hawks and the conservative Seoul government by giving an "understated" appearance on the talks. For example, the US state department said it was ready to have another high-level meeting with North Korea to woo it back to the six-party talks on its denuclearisation.
Yesterday, Mr Bosworth negated the announcement. "We have not talked about the possibility of another bilateral meeting," he told reporters in Beijing. email@example.com * With additional reporting by the Associated Press