North Korea's suggestion that it may return to nuclear negotiations could open the way to its first talks with the Obama administration, but there are warning signs that the North has no intention of fully disarming.
The administration is eager to get North Korea on track toward giving up its nuclear weapons capability even though the White House remains leery of the regime's pattern of progress followed by provocation.
The North agreed in 2007 to dismantle its nuclear arms program but then reversed course. Last April and May it conducted nuclear and missile tests, coupled with a declaration that negotiations were dead, then reversed course again, reaching out to the U.S. after former President Bill Clinton met in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang with North Korean leader Kim Jong Ill.
The State Department on Tuesday declined to comment on news reports that Kim told Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on Monday that he might be prepared to resume so-called six party negotiations with the U.S., China, Russia, Japan and South Korea. Kim was reported to have said a resumption depended on progress in talks with the U.S.
But a State Department official said Tuesday that the U.S. will not agree to one-on-one talks unless it is given assurances in advance that the outcome will be a deal to resume six-party negotiations.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss internal deliberations, said the U.S. hopes to hear from China on Wednesday whether Kim gave such an assurance in Monday's meeting with Wen, who was in Pyongyang for the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
The Obama administration has said it is willing to hold one-on-one talks with North Korea so long as it leads to a return to the six-party effort, which Washington sees as a more effective way of applying diplomatic leverage. The last six-party talks were held in December 2008; in April the North Koreans announced that they would never return to that format and that they were expanding their nuclear force.
Bruce Bennett, a North Korea watcher at the RAND Corp. think tank, said it appears the North Koreans are trying to "bait" the Americans into negotiations that have no realistic chance of achieving disarmament.
"I don't think North Korea at this stage is willing to give up its nuclear weapons," Bennett said in an interview. "It would appear the North Korean objective is to be recognized as a nuclear power, not to denuclearize."
In anticipation of a North Korean assurance that the one-one-talks could lead to the return of six-party negotiations, the administration has been laying the groundwork for a one-on-one dialogue. That preparation has included sorting out who would participate and where the talks would be held, according to another State Department official who also spoke on condition of anonymity.
Richard C. Bush III, an Asia expert at the Brookings Institution and former U.S. government intelligence officer, said the administration may send Stephen Bosworth, its special envoy on North Korea, to Pyongyang for any one-on-one talks.
The purpose, he said, should be to assess the North Korean attitude and to emphasize the importance of denuclearization, but not to negotiate one-on-one.
"But I don't really see much in what Kim Jong Il reportedly said (Monday) to indicate that the situation has really changed," Bush said, adding that the Koreans' apparent aim is to negotiate over what they perceive to be a hostile U.S. policy, not to negotiate an airtight elimination of their nuclear weapons.
"Until there is credible evidence that North Korea again might be willing to give up its nuclear weapons in a complete and verifiable way, it's not clear that the six-party talks _ or any venue, for that matter _ is an appropriate way to reach that goal," Bush said.
EDITOR'S NOTE _ Robert Burns has covered national securit and military affairs for The Associated Press since 1990.