BEIJING — Amid cautious optimism, U.S. and North Korean envoys met Thursday for their first talks on dismantling Pyongyang's nuclear programs since the death of the country's longtime leader Kim Jong Il.
The discussions will be closely watched for signs of a more cooperative approach from North Korea, which stands to gain food aid, economic help, and diplomatic concessions in return for taking steps to end its efforts to develop nuclear weapons.
The countries were on the verge of a deal to have Washington provide food if Pyongyang suspends its uranium enrichment program when the agreement was upended by Kim's Dec. 17 death.
"Today is, as we say, 'game day.' We will have an opportunity to meet with First Vice Foreign Minister Kim and his team," U.S. envoy Glyn Davies said before the start of morning talks with Kim Kye Gwan at the North Korean Embassy in Beijing.
The two will hold a second session Thursday afternoon at the U.S. Embassy.
The talks in Beijing, the third round since July, are ostensibly aimed at restarting wider six-nation 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 responsibility for the sinking.
Davies said it was a good sign that North Korea had agreed to re-enter talks so soon after the Kim's death amid a transfer of power to his young son, Kim Jong Un, and a coterie of advisers.
Davies said a key point was to see if North Korea was willing to fulfill obligations made in a joint statement in September 2005, which committed North Korea to abandoning its nuclear program in exchange for aid and pledges that Washington wouldn't seek the regime's ouster.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in Washington that the United States was "cautiously optimistic" about the talks.
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.
Toner said food assistance would be discussed in the talks, but that the United States has some concerns it wants North Korea to address. He did not say what those concerns were, but analysts have said North Korea must agree to have U.N. watchdogs monitor any freeze of its uranium enrichment. Otherwise it could backtrack — as it has done with previous agreements.
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 began their talks, North Korea's state media criticized next month's Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, which is expected to draw dozens of world leaders, including 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.
The North said it is "worse still" to hold the summit during joint U.S.-South Korean military drills scheduled for the next few months, which the commentary called "rehearsals for a nuclear war against the North."
Seoul and Washington say the annual drills are defensive in nature.