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(LEAD) (News Focus) No breakthrough expected for U.S.-N.K. relations: American experts

2014/09/04 06:10

By Chang Jae-soon

WASHINGTON, Sept. 3 (Yonhap) -- No breakthrough is in sight for relations between North Korea and the United States despite a recent series of signs that the communist nation is trying to reach out to the outside world, American experts said Wednesday.

Talk of a possible breakthrough in the deadlocked negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang has gained traction following unconfirmed reports that a team of U.S. officials made a secret trip to North Korea on a military jet last month.

The U.S. government neither confirmed nor denied the reports.

Adding to the talk of a possible breakthrough was a plan by North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong to travel to New York to attend this year's meeting of the U.N. General Assembly. Ri's trip, if realized, would mark the first time for a North Korean foreign minister to attend a UNGA meeting in 15 years.

In addition, veteran diplomat Kang Sok-ju, a ruling Workers' Party secretary handling international relations, also plans to travel to Europe later this month. Kang is a long-time foreign policy strategist in the North, who served as Pyongyang's lead negotiator in talks with the United States that defused the 1994 nuclear crisis.

The top North Korean diplomats' travel plans instantly touched off speculation that they could hold talks with U.S. officials during the trip to negotiate a resumption of the long-stalled six-party talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear program.

But American experts cautioned against reading too much into these developments.

"The likelihood that all of this represents some shift in U.S.-DPRK relations is very small," said Joel Wit, a former State Department official and an expert on Korean Peninsula issues who now serves as editor of the 38 North website at Johns Hopkins University.

DPRK stands for the North's official name, Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

"I think it is more likely is that it is just part of the DPRK's foreign policy, bolstering ties with the non-aligned movement and, in the case of Kang, since he is newly appointed as head of the international department, making a perfectly normal maiden voyage abroad," he said.

Wit was referring to a series of overseas trips that the North's foreign minister, Ri, has been making since taking office in early April. He spent about 50 days on trips to African and Middle Eastern nations from late May to early July, before traveling to Southeast Asian nations last month.

Such brisk diplomacy is unusual for North Korea, one of the world's most isolated nations.

Wit also played down the possibility of the reported "secret trip" to the North by American officials.

"From Pyongyang's perspective, a secret trip is unlikely to result in any shift in relations without the U.S. offering some sign that it is willing to change its position requiring preconditions for the resumption of the six party talks and offer the North Koreans some sign of a willingness to explore the possibility of better bilateral relations," he said.

North Korea has long called for unconditional resumption of negotiations on nuclear and other bilateral issues, but the U.S. and South Korea have demanded that the communist nation first take concrete steps to demonstrate its commitment to denuclearization if negotiations are to restart.

Douglas Paal, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, also said that the United States is unlikely to lower the bar for restarting the nuclear talks. Reported personnel changes in the U.S. government rather point to the opposite, he said.

"Overall there is nothing that I can see that suggests the U.S. government is even considering softening its stance on the many issues between Washington and Pyongyang. The new U.S. personnel changes suggest, in fact, the opposite," he said.

Paal was referring to reports that Sydney Seiler, director for Korea at the National Security Council, is expected to take office as new special envoy for six-party talks while outgoing U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Sung Kim succeeds Glyn Davies as special representative for North Korea policy.

"Neither can be viewed as soft toward the North," the expert said of Seiler and Kim.

Paal also said that the "secret trip" that American officials reportedly made to North Korea, even if it is true, must have focused only on the three American citizens detained in the North. The three men's appearance before CNN cameras a week later reinforces this suspicion, he said.

The extensive overseas trips by the North's foreign minister and the first vice foreign minister could be an attempt by Pyongyang to reduce its isolation amid Beijing's "cold shoulder" treatment toward the young North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, the expert said.

"If Pyongyang cannot meet Beijing's terms for a better relationship, then the logical route is through other capitals whom the North Koreans may hope will be less demanding," he said.

Richard Bush, a senior researcher at the Brookings Institution, said that the overseas trips by the top North Korean diplomats are in line with the country's "Byeongjin" policy of simultaneously pursuing nuclear development and economic development.

He also said that the rumored visit to the North by U.S. officials does not necessarily mean that the United States is softening its position on key North Korea issues. Instead, the trip, if it had taken place, must have been focused on winning the release of the detained Americans, he said.

jschang@yna.co.kr

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