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Others describe Mr. Davies as likable, with a good sense of humor, a consummate networker, extremely committed to U.S. diplomacy but also known to show his frustration if his efforts are not working.

Mr. Davies previously served as a deputy to Christopher Hill, who was the top U.S. negotiator with North Korea during the presidency of George W. Bush, but Mr. Davies himself lacks the deep Korea experience that MR. Bosworth, a former ambassador to Seoul, brought to the job.

Mr. Davies will be partnered with Clifford Hart, a China expert who will serve as U.S. special envoy to the six-nation talks that North Korea pulled out of in April 2009 after being censured for launching a long-range missile.

“Both are quick studies, and it won’t take them long to figure out that the North is not serious about denuclearization,” said Victor Cha, an expert on North Korea who was National Security Council director for Asia during the George W. Bush administration.

Since pulling out of the six-party talks, which also include China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the United States, the North has only grown more aggressive.

It conducted its second-ever nuclear test in 2009 and in late 2010 disclosed a uranium enrichment program that could give it another means of generating fissile material for nuclear bombs. During 2010 it also was blamed for two military attacks on rival South Korea that risked pitching the divided peninsula into war again.

Before the six-party talks can resume, the U.S. wants to see concrete action that would include North Korea freezing its nuclear programs, allowing access to IAEA inspectors, imposing a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests and making a commitment not to attack South Korea again.

The United States is in a delicate position. It does not want to reward bad behavior but also is concerned that failure to engage the North could prompt Mr. Kim’s government to lash out.

As the U.S. enters an election year, PresidentObama would want to avoid the kind of security crisis that another military provocation or a nuclear test would present.

Mr. Kim’s regime probably will want to appear strong as it prepares for a leadership succession and the centennial next year of the birth of Kim Il-sung. Some see the North’s willingness to return to six-party talks as a strategy to win not just aid but de facto acceptance as a nuclear power.

“Dialogue may not get denuclearization, but it does help to manage the situation, avert a crisis in an election year, and possibly offer small victories in freezing elements of the (nuclear) program,” Mr. Cha wrote in a commentary Wednesday.

“It’s not great, but it may be all we can hope for.”

Associated Press writer Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.