The U.S. envoy for the North Korean nuclear dispute said talks with Pyongyang's lead negotiator on Thursday were serious and substantive and would continue the next day but analysts have said no major breakthrough is expected.
The talks in Beijing between U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Glyn Davies and North Korean envoy Kim Kye-gwan are the Obama administration's latest effort to gauge whether Pyongyang's new leadership is willing to curb its nuclear activities and return to disarmament negotiations.
After a day of discussions with Kim, Davies told reporters that he could not go into details about any possible progress.
The talks today were substantive and serious and we covered quite a number of the issues, and so as I say we'll pick up again tomorrow and see if we can't make a little bit of progress, Davies told reporters who gathered at his hotel
The topics they covered included North Korea's demands for food aid, he said.
In fact, they haven't quite concluded, and we intend to pick up where we have left off this evening tomorrow, he said, adding that he would also have dinner with the North Korean officials. We are still in mid-negotiations.
If these negotiations succeed, they could inch forward efforts to revive fully fledged nuclear disarmament talks -- provided the two sides manage to narrow differences over what disarmament entails and what North Korea could get in return.
But there is a moat of distrust to cross before North Korea and the United States and its allies get there.
North Korea agreed to curtail its nuclear activities under a an aid-for-denuclearization agreement reached in September 2005 by six-party talks bringing together North and South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States.
Under the agreement, the North agreed to abandon its nuclear programmes in exchange for economic and diplomatic incentives to be provided by the other parties involved in the negotiations.
But the embryonic deal was never fully implemented. Instead, the North held two nuclear test blasts -- in 2006 and 2009 -- and later disclosed a uranium enrichment programme, giving it a second path to obtaining fissile material for bombs, in addition to its long-standing programme of producing plutonium.
This week's meeting is the third between Washington and Pyongyang officials in the last eight months and the first since the death of former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, who has been succeeded by his son, Kim Jong-un.
The United States, South Korea and their allies have been sceptical of North Korea's assertions that it stands ready to return to the six-party talks, and analysts have said Davies's talks in Beijing are unlikely to trigger breakthroughs.
The key concession the North is likely to seek is U.S. food aid for its chronically hungry population.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak told a news conference in Seoul on Wednesday that his government was ready to talk with the North with an open heart if Pyongyang was also willing to be sincere.
Lee said Pyongyang faced a good opportunity to change its course, apparently referring to the change in leadership after Kim Jong-il's death in December.
(Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Nick Macfie)