The United States and North Korea resumed talks Thursday after a delay caused by the death of Jong-il two months ago, with the U.S. envoy saying he and his counterpart covered U.S. food aid and other topics.
The discussions — the first since North Korea's longtime leader died — are to continue Friday and could signal whether North Korea's new government is ready to agree to steps demanded by Washington and Pyongyang's neighbours to restart broader international disarmament talks, which are meant to provide aid and diplomatic concessions in return for the North abandoning its nuclear weapons programs.
Kim's Dec. 17 death upended a deal between the United States and North Korea where Pyongyang would have suspended its uranium enrichment in return for food aid from Washington. The meetings in Beijing may partly reveal North Korea's goals under new leader Kim Jong-un, who has vowed to follow his father's policies.
"The talks today were substantive and serious and we covered quite a number of issues," U.S. envoy Glyn Davies told reporters after meeting his counterpart Kim Kye Gwan for almost six hours over two sessions, first at the North Korean Embassy and then at the U.S. Embassy.
Davies would not provide other details, saying only that nutritional aid was discussed.
Kim said he found it "positive" that the two sides talked with "serious attitudes," South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported. Kim wouldn't elaborate when asked if progress was made.
The talks in Beijing, the third round since July, are aimed at restarting six-nation nuclear disarmament negotiations that also involve China, Japan, Russia and South Korea. Pyongyang walked away from those talks in 2009 and later exploded its second nuclear device.
Additional steps may still be needed before a resumption of the six-nation talks. The North may first request food shipments, while the U.S. and its allies want assurances Pyongyang is committed to making progress on past nuclear commitments.
The United States has also said that better ties between North Korea and U.S. ally South Korea are crucial. North Korea has rejected South Korean offers to talk in recent weeks, and animosity between the rivals still lingers from violence in 2010: a North Korean artillery attack in November killed four South Koreans on a front-line island, and Seoul blames North Korea for the sinking of a warship that killed 46 sailors earlier that year. Pyongyang denies sinking the ship and says a South Korean live-fire drill provoked the artillery attack.
The six-nation talks, once restarted, would be aimed at dismantling North Korea's remaining nuclear programs in exchange for what would likely involve even greater donations of aid.
Worries about North Korea's nuclear capability took on renewed urgency in November 2010 when the country disclosed a uranium enrichment facility that could give it a second route to manufacture nuclear weapons, in addition to its existing plutonium-based program.
As the envoys talked in Beijing, North Korea's state media criticized next month's Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, which is expected to draw dozens of world leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama, to discuss nuclear terrorism and safety.
"It is illogical to discuss the 'nuclear security' issue in South Korea, the U.S. nuclear advance base and a hotbed of nuclear war," the North's official Korean Central News Agency said in a commentary Thursday.