Prague, 6 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- As 2004 begins, the U.S. administration remains as deadlocked as ever with North Korea over Pyongyang's year-old decision to restart its nuclear program.
But behind the scenes, diplomatic activity is once again moving apace, as the six countries that are party to multilateral Korea talks make plans to reconvene.
Today, a delegation of U.S. academics and congressional advisers arrived in North Korea at the start of a five-day visit that is expected to include a tour of the Yongbyon nuclear facility that has been at the center of tensions. The Americans have stressed they are visiting North Korea as private citizens, not as representatives of the U.S. government. Organizer John Lewis -- a Stanford University professor -- reiterated that point to reporters today in Beijing, before boarding a flight to Pyongyang.
"We go totally as private citizens. I'm a professor. We are not in any way an official group, so we have nothing to do with the official talks," Lewis said.
Nevertheless, the fact that the Americans could be the first foreigners to set foot inside the Yongbyon nuclear site since North Korea expelled UN inspectors a year ago makes the visit noteworthy.
And the fact that the unofficial U.S. delegation includes two current staff members of the U.S. Senate's Foreign Relations Committee, as well as a former director of the Los Alamos nuclear weapons research center, means any assessment they make on the state of North Korea's nuclear program is likely to carry some weight in Washington.
The Yongbyon complex includes a nuclear reactor, which North Korea restarted last year for civilian use, as well as 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods whose plutonium Pyongyang claims it has extracted and reprocessed to manufacture nuclear bombs.
The reactor's start-up was confirmed by satellite imagery, but the extent of Pyongyang's plutonium extraction and reprocessing efforts remains unverified.
Despite the scientific expertise of some of the delegation members, Sebastian Harnisch, a Korea expert at Germany's University of Trier, told RFE/RL he doubts they will be able to shed much light on the extent of North Korea's reprocessing drive. To draw serious conclusions, he says delegation members would need sophisticated equipment and a freedom of movement that is unlikely to be granted by the local authorities. Harnisch sees the importance of the visit more in political terms.
For any real assessment to be made, he said, the North Koreans "would have to open up the reprocessing plant, [and the delegation members] would have to have the technical capacity to make sure whether there has been reprocessing in that plant and how much had gone on. And I doubt very much that [the North Koreans] will open up the plant to that degree. And I very much doubt whether this delegation has the technical capacity with it to find this out. No, I think [the visit is] a carrot in order to persuade or -- if you will, manipulate -- the internal discussions in the United States and in the Bush administration."
"We go totally as private citizens. I'm a professor. We are not in any way an official group, so we have nothing to do with the official talks."
To that end, North Korea issued a statement today saying it is prepared to freeze any nuclear tests and weapons manufacturing, as well as to stop operating its civilian nuclear reactor, if Washington offers a series of simultaneous, reciprocal actions, including an immediate lifting of U.S. sanctions.
In essence, this is a reiteration of Pyongyang's long-standing position. The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, however, continues to insist that North Korea first scrap its nuclear program before any improvement in relations can take place.
But Harnisch says the timing of today's statement, during the U.S. delegation's visit, does signal a new apparent willingness by the North Koreans to come to some accommodation with the Bush White House.
"Many people said that the North Koreans were playing for time and waiting for another American president, but this initiative may well show that, in fact, they are working on a deal or that they are willing to strike a deal even before the presidential campaign starts in earnest," Harnisch said.
Statements by some prominent Republicans -- including Richard Lugar, chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who has advocated direct talks with North Korea -- appear to have convinced the North Koreans that even within his own party, Bush may face pressure to negotiate a settlement.
The other possibility is that having seen the demise of Iraq's Saddam Hussein, as well as Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's recent about-face, North Korean ruler Kim Jong Il may feel compelled to come in from the cold.
Or, North Korea may simply be making the best of a purely technical problem, as Harnisch suggests. "Many would argue that they have technical problems with the reprocessing plant and that they stopped reprocessing after having reprocessed only 2,000 to 3,000 of the 8,000 fuel rods," he said. "So, I'm not sure whether this is really a concession or a technical problem."
It could be a combination of all three factors. In any case, there is now some reason to believe that six-way talks -- when they do resume later this month or in February -- could have a better chance of succeeding than the previous failed round last August.
But the outcome, say analysts, also rests on the Bush administration's willingness to adjust its negotiating position.