WASHINGTON – Getting North Korea (search) to say yet again it will return to negotiations on its nuclear weapons (search) program is only the first step on a long road that will test the Bush administration's Asian alliances and its influence with China (search).
So far, North Korea simply has informed American diplomats that it would return to the negotiating table after a yearlong breakoff. No date was set, and North Korea's record is a spotty one.
"The North Koreans said they would return but did not give us a time," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Tuesday in reporting the outcome of talks Monday at the North Koreans' U.N. mission in New York.
In a statement Wednesday, North Korea mentioned the meetings with U.S. officials but didn't give any indication of its imminent return to the negotiating table.
The North said a resumption of the disarmament talks "was entirely dependent on how the United States accepts our demand for creating right conditions and environment," according to the statement carried by the North's official Korean Central News Agency.
Last year, North Korea also promised to reopen talks in September, but stayed away, hurling invective at the Bush administration and refusing to bargain again with the United States and its four partners, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia.
In January, Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., said after leading a congressional delegation to Pyongyang that North Korea appeared ready to negotiate "in a matter of weeks."
It never happened.
"First things first," Mitchell Reiss, the State Department's policy planning director in the first Bush administration, said Tuesday. "The North Koreans have to come back to the table and they have to stay, and they have to negotiate seriously."
But Reiss, now provost at William & Mary College, pointed out in a telephone interview that the United States had work to do, as well — spelling out what North Korea could expect in return if it halted its nuclear weapons program.
At the last round of talks, in Beijing last June, U.S. negotiator James Kelly floated the prospect of a U.S. pledge not to attack North Korea, along with economic incentives to the hard-pressed regime.
"We have to flesh it out," Reiss said.
The former senior official said he was very skeptical of success but that the United States must make a reasonably serious attempt to reach an agreement with Pyongyang. "This deals with managing our alliances with South Korea and Japan and also being seen in Asia as willing and able to address a core national security issue."
Clearly, the Bush administration is looking for help, and China is its target.
Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, who now is in charge of the negotiations, told reporters that China has a big job to take on with the North Koreans.
"The exercise is not just getting them to the talks," Hill said. "It is getting them to the talks with a willingness to give up permanently their nuclear program."
Hill also held over North Korea's head a threat of seeking political and economic sanctions from the U.N. Security Council.
"It's an option we always reserve when we feel it's appropriate," he said.
In New York, China's U.N. ambassador said six-nation talks were likely to resume in the next few weeks in Beijing. Ambassador Wang Guangya told reporters the talks were the best way to resolve the nuclear standoff and said he was hopeful progress would be made.
South Korea reacted cautiously.
Presidential aide Chung Woo-sung said that although the U.S. claims were "a good sign," the North "has not set a date."
"It is too early to jump to a conclusion," he said, adding that the talks should resume in "June or July, at the latest."
Balbina Hwang, policy analyst on North Korea for the Heritage Foundation, took a sobering stance in an interview Tuesday.
"I think people are jumping the gun," she said. "We have to put this into perspective. People are running around elated.
"Getting North Korea back to the table is not in and of itself a success. The success is getting North Korea to agree to the proposal" to end its nuclear program, she said.
"I will believe North Korea has come back to the table when they actually come back," Hwang said. "And even then I will view that with skepticism until I see what their response to the proposal is."
Michele Flournoy, a senior Pentagon official in the Clinton administration, agreed that "getting them back to the table is a critical first step."
But Flournoy, senior adviser to the Center for Strategic International Studies, said the outcome of negotiations will depend heavily on the Bush administration "being much more explicit up front about the kinds of incentives they would get if they halted their nuclear program."
"Make it real, make it concrete," she said in an interview.
And the main challenge for the Bush administration, Flournoy said, "is creating a united front with China, Japan, South Korea and Russia so North Korea cannot exploit differences among us."