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New U.S. envoy on N. Korea faces tough mission

- Associated Press - Thursday, October 20, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) — The new U.S. envoy on North Korea is no stranger to nuclear diplomacy and finding ways to deal with prickly adversaries such as Iran. His new assignment, however, could be his toughest yet: persuading a defiant regime that boasts about its nuclear weapons to give up its arsenal in return for aid.

Glyn Davies, the U.S. ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, takes up his new job as the Obama administration deepens its engagement with Pyongyang — seeking to manage the risk of another military or nuclear provocation by the North. On Wednesday, the U.S. announced new talks with the North.

Mr. Davies is a career diplomat who served as a State Department deputy spokesman during the presidency of Bill Clinton. Before his current posting in Vienna, Austria, he held a senior position in the department's Bureau for East Asia and the Pacific.

He will join the U.S. delegation at talks with North Korea on Monday and Tuesday in Geneva, the second direct U.S.-North Korean negotiations in less than three months. The delegation will be led by the current envoy, Stephen Bosworth, who has held the job since February 2009 but in a part-time capacity. Mr. Bosworth then will resign.

On Thursday, North Korea repeated calls for the immediate resumption of six-nation disarmament-for-aid talks, saying denuclearization is essential for world peace.

"To bring the process for the denuclearization of the peninsula back to its track, it is necessary to pay primary attention to building trust between (North Korea) and the United States ... and resume the six-party talks without preconditions at an early date," the official Korean Central News Agency said in a commentary.

Leader Kim Jong-il said in a written interview published Wednesday by Russia's ITAR-Tass news agency that North Korea has a "nuclear deterrent force" to protect it from Washington.

"The nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula arose through the fault of the USA, which constantly threatens the sovereignty and security of our people," Mr. Kim was quoted as saying.

Mr. Kim, however, called for resumption of the nuclear talks, saying denuclearization is a testament to his late father, North Korea founder Kim Il-sung.

On Thursday in Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said: "We welcome the U.S. and (North Korea) engaging in dialogue. We also hope that the relevant parties can maintain the momentum of dialogue and contact, show flexibility and create conditions for the quick resumption of the six-party talks."

Also, the U.S. this week began negotiations with the North on resuming the search for the remains of service members missing from the 1950-53 Korean War. Coming after nearly two years of minimal contact, it is a flurry of diplomacy, but the administration stresses that despite the personnel change, its policy has not changed.

It wants to keep open channels of contact with the North but will not resume multinational disarmament-for-aid negotiations unless Pyongyang takes concrete action to show it is serious about meeting its previous commitments on denuclearization.

Associates say Mr. Davies, as ambassador to the IAEA, has been effective in winning support for U.S.-backed measures to pressure Iran over its nuclear program, although Tehran, which insists its program is for peaceful uses, shows little sign of heeding international opinion.

"He's a good appointment for the North Korea job, as it's a heck of a challenge," said Olli Heinonen, former IAEA deputy director-general, who described Mr. Davies' key strength as his ability in multilateral diplomacy to bring parties together.

"He's a good communicator and willing to talk to adversaries," Mr. Heinonen said. "He's easygoing and fairly low-key but can be tough when he needs to be."

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.

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