SEOUL (Reuters) - Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter goes to North Korea this week to press it to show it is sincere about returning to aid-for-disarmament talks, but the chances of Pyongyang’s giving up its nuclear program appear more remote than ever.
The Nobel Peace prize winner will lead a delegation of former state leaders on a three-day visit to the secretive state, where they will also discuss U.N. agencies’ appeals to provide food aid to the impoverished North.
Analysts say the visit will probably yield more promises from North Korea, but unless it shows sincerity by matching words with actions — such as allowing international nuclear inspectors back into the country — the impasse over restarting nuclear talks will remain.
North Korea quit six-party talks involving it, the United States, South Korea, China, Japan and Russia, in 2009 after the United Nations imposed a new round of sanctions after the North conducted a second nuclear test and a long-range missile test.
“I’d expect a few new North Korea overtures, in particular in connection with the Carter visit in late April, and the rest depends on the West’s reaction,” said Ruediger Frank, a North Korea expert at the University of Vienna.
Carter achieved diplomatic success on the peninsula in 1994 when he brokered a deal which pulled Washington and Pyongyang back from the brink of war over the North’s nuclear program.
“At a time when official dialogue with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea appears to be at a standstill, we aim to see how we may be of assistance in reducing tensions and help the parties address key issues including denuclearization,” Carter, who was in Beijing Sunday, said in a statement.
DPRK is the formal name of North Korea.
John Delury, of Seoul’s Yonsei University, said Pyongyang, Washington and Seoul like to “show themselves to be open to dialogue, so there’s a lot of dancing around,” but there is little genuine desire to make the six-party talks work.
“Seoul and DC (Washington) strike me as ambivalent at best about returning to talks ... (the) only motivation is the negative one — that sanctions don’t seem to be working,” he said.
While Washington has said it “won’t talk for talks’ sake,” experts say that while the two sides engage in dialogue the likelihood of the North staging a military attack like last year’s deadly assault on a South Korean island diminishes.
The South’s spy chief, Won Sei-hoon, told lawmakers last week that North Korea could stage a missile or nuclear test if its appeals for talks failed, South Korean media reported.
Over the past month, North Korea has embarked on a charm offensive sending officials to Berlin and London, where they also met former U.S. government officials to discuss their nuclear program and ways to end their political standoff.
Nuclear envoys from the regional powers have also been shuttling back and forth in a bid to find a way to restart the talks.
The main power brokers in the region, China and the United States, say the two Koreas must first hold bilateral nuclear talks as a prelude to ground-breaking U.S.-North Korea talks followed by six-party talks.
But analysts say the six-party talks are doomed because the sides have very different agendas.
The North sees the talks as a means of brokering denuclearization of the entire peninsula, while Washington, Seoul and Tokyo say the agenda is focused solely on the North.
Moreover, few really believe the North will ever give up its program to make a nuclear bomb for it is the ultimate bargaining chip as well as a deterrent.
Even the U.S. Commander in South Korea, Walter Sharp, this month said that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il believed he had to have “the bomb” to ensure regime survival.
Uprisings in the Middle East and north Africa, in particular the events in one-time nuclear weapons aspirant Libya, have only served to strengthen the North’s belief in a nuclear capability.
North Korea said last month Western air strikes against Libya showed how it had become more vulnerable after scrapping its nuclear weapons program in 2003.
But at the same time, the North’s leadership will also be acutely aware of the West’s resolve to pursue regime change in authoritarian states such as Libya, and it will be anxious not to invoke an Asian repeat.
Before the “Jasmine” uprisings, experts predicted the North would likely make another aggressive move on the Korean peninsula, either in the form of a military attack or by conducting a nuclear or missile test, as early as this spring.
“Due to the Libyan events, the probability of a new attack against the South diminished greatly, while a new missile and/or nuclear test is more likely than we could think a couple of months ago,” said Andrei Lankov of Kookmin University in Seoul.
Editing by David Chance and Robert Birsel