Reading the Tea Leaves in Newly Announced U.S. Talks with North Korea

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Despite the change in regime, the lines of communication between the U.S. and North Korea have remained open, leading to the announcement on Monday that they they would hold talks on Feb. 23 in Beijing. It will be the third in a series of “conversations” between the two countries which began last July in the hopes of restarting the six-party talks (the six being the U.S., North and South Korea, China, Russia and Japan) that were blown up by North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile tests of 2009. The Beijing meeting had originally been scheduled for the week after Kim Jong Il’s death and U.S. diplomats were unsure what to expect when they reached out to their North Korean counterparts. When the previous North Korean leader, Kim Il Sung died, Kim Jong Il spent three years mourning his father.

Does the renewal of the “conversation” signal anything about Kim Jong Il’s young son and successor Kim Jong Un? Because they are a rescheduling of talks previously scheduled, most analysts interpret the move as a continuation of Kim Jong Il’s policies. Could there be more clues? The North Korean delegation will be led by North Korean’s First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan, just as the last two meetings have been. It’s anyone’s guess if there will be any new faces among Pyongyang’s negotiators at this meeting. If there are, they may hold subtle hints to shifts in the regime’s thinking. Or not. North Korean tea leaves are particularly difficult to read.

(PHOTOS: Pictures Inside North Korea)

Next week’s Beijing meeting, Washington says, will be to get Pyongyang back to the 2005 Joint Statement of the Six Party Talks. According to that declaration, North Korea would take concrete steps to denuclearization, observe a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile testing, abide by the armistice that’s already in force and find ways to expand its dialogue with South Korea.

But North Korea appears to have already upped the ante. On the table before Kim Jong Il’s death was some 240,000 metric tons of food aid for vulnerable populations–namely children under five, nursing mothers and the elderly, according to Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korean studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. The country’s food production has never fully recovered from a famine in the 1990s. In the only statement on the negotiations issued thus far by the new regime, North Korea said their demand is now 300,000 tons, half of it in grain that they could use to feed anyone, including an army. The U.S. had previously been wary of such aid going to nourish Pyongyang’s already coddled military. Washington notes that any movement on food aid will not be linked to North Korean denuclearization. Will the difference on food aid kill the talks before they start? “Is it insurmountable?” asks an administration official rhetorically. “We’ll find out.”

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