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The Associated Press reported then that the U.S. was poised to announce a significant donation of food aid to North Korea. That would have been followed within days by an agreement to suspend North Korea’s uranium enrichment program, according to a broad outline of the agreement made known to the AP by people close to the negotiations.

Then Kim Jong-il died, and everything went on hold.

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.

Victor Cha, a Korea expert and White House director of Asian affairs during the George. W. Bush presidency, said he was concerned that the U.S. side may now be overly eager for a deal in hopes of avoiding any Korean security crisis during this year’s presidential election campaign.

“The last thing you want is (to want) a deal more than the North Koreans do,” Cha said.

A key success would be gaining North Korea’s agreement to have U.N. watchdogs monitor any freeze of its uranium enrichment, Cha said. Otherwise the country might backtrack — as it has done with previous agreements — and use the enrichment program to leverage additional concessions.

Without monitoring, a nuclear freeze would be like “selling the same horse” over and over again, Cha said.

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.

The divided Korean Peninsula is still tense from a bloody 2010, which saw the North’s shelling of a front-line island that killed four South Koreans and a deadly warship sinking blamed on the North that killed 46 South Korean sailors.

Kim Jong-il’s death raised fears of even greater uncertainty, although the South’s president, Lee Myung-bak, said Wednesday his country was ready to talk with the North “with an open heart” if it shows a “sincere” attitude.

The United States has said that it favors a diplomatic solution to the North Korean nuclear standoff, but only if Pyongyang improves ties with Seoul first. North Korea has rejected South Korea’s calls for talks since Kim’s death.

AP reporters Matthew Pennington in Washington and Sam Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.