SEOUL (Reuters) - A U.S. nuclear envoy was scheduled to go to Beijing on Sunday for international talks that will likely be the Bush administration’s last chance to move forward a sputtering disarmament-for-aid deal with destitute North Korea.
Five regional powers will begin deliberations with North Korea from Monday to try to have the isolated state accept a system to verify claims it made about its nuclear arms program in exchange for much needed aid and better diplomatic standing.
“I am not very optimistic,” South Korean nuclear envoy Kim Sook told local media before heading to Beijing.
Analysts do not expect North Korea to make any serious moves until President-elect Barack Obama takes office in January.
They say the only way there will be major progress in Beijing is if U.S. envoy Christopher Hill offers significant last-minute concessions such as agreeing to a flexible verification system where secretive Pyongyang can prohibit inspectors from looking into parts of its nuclear program it wants to keep in the dark.
“The North is expected to focus on getting as much energy and economic aid as possible under the principle of ‘action for action’,” said Paik Hak-soon, the director at the Center for North Korean studies at the South’s Sejong Institute.
Conservatives in Washington have criticized Hill for being too flexible with North Korea and not obtaining detailed information about its suspected program to enrich uranium for weapons or proliferating technology to countries such as Syria.
The most recent snag for the often-delayed nuclear dealings has been the North’s reluctance to allow international inspectors to take nuclear samples out of the country for testing.
Washington maintains Pyongyang is obliged to allow such tests. U.S. officials say North Korea has produced about 50 kgs (110 lbs) of plutonium --- enough for about six to eight nuclear bombs.
The impoverished state has spent the best part of two decades goading U.S. presidents and regional powers into handing over billions of dollars to curtail, but never actually end, its nuclear weapons program, considered one of Asia’s biggest security threats.
Obama has mostly supported President George W. Bush’s North Korea diplomacy. The one thing Obama appears willing to consider, and which analysts say North Korean leader Kim Jong-il dearly prizes, is the first direct talks with a U.S. president.
The prickly North has largely cut ties with what once was a major aid donor in South Korea in anger at the tough policies of its conservative president, who took office in February.
In the meantime, it has won concessions in the nuclear talks that benefit its economy.
On Saturday, it said it would ignore Japan at the nuclear talks, further aggravating ties already damaged over issues related to North Korean agents’ kidnappings of Japanese nationals decades ago.
Japan has said it will not join China, Russia, South Korea and the United States in providing aid to North Korea unless the matter of its abductees has been solved, prompting Pyongyang to say Japan should be removed from the six-country talks.
Additional reporting by Kim Junghyun and Jerry Norton