Is North Korea Ready to Do (Another) Nuke Deal?

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KCNA / Reuters

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il visits the Kangdong Light Electrical Appliance Factory in Pyongyang in this undated picture released on Jan. 11, 2010

North Korea's propagandists rarely get to have as much fun as they do when writing the official annual New Year's editorial carried by various official news outlets. Brimming with venom and vitriol, the message typically consists primarily of blood-curdling threats to bludgeon various enemies into submission. In 2009, they wrote that the "daunting reality" North Korea faced required the "seething red blood of revolution."

This year was different, though. In the midst of one of its periodic "peace offensives," the New Year's message had the regime in Pyongyang purring like a pussycat. It focused on developing light industry and agriculture to improve the lives of its citizens. And in a passage carefully noted in both Washington and in the South Korean capital, Seoul, the message read: "The fundamental task for ensuring peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and in the rest of Asia is to put an end to the hostile relationship between [North Korea] and the U.S.A."

None of last year's call for blood was there. And just in case anyone had missed the point, Pyongyang reiterated it on Jan. 11, saying the key to its return to the six-party nuclear talks — which it had declared "dead" last April — was better relations with the U.S., starting with a peace treaty that would formally end the Korean War, which concluded with a truce that has been in place since 1953. The price of such rapprochement, it demanded, was a lifting of international sanctions on North Korea.

It's precisely at times like these that dealing with the world's most opaque regime becomes trickier than usual. When, this past Spring, the North test-fired a long-range missile — in violation of U.N. resolutions and on the very same day President Barack Obama was giving a utopian speech in Prague about his vision for a nuclear-free world — even the President's engagement-oriented advisers on East Asia were furious. They happily went to the U.N. to press for even tighter sanctions against Pyongyang, got them, and then sat back and waited to see if the North's tone would change.

The regime did begin to soften, beginning with former President Bill Clinton's trip to Pyongyang in August to bring back two hapless American correspondents detained for entering North Korea illegally. Obama responded by sending his special envoy, Ambassador Stephen Bosworth, to Pyongyang in December bearing a private letter from the U.S. President to Kim Jong Il. In it, Obama offered the North a new era of relations with the U.S. if it first agreed to return to the six-party talks and agree (for the third time since 2005, and the fourth time since 1994) to dismantle its nuclear-weapons program.

Given the North's long-established record of following periods of belligerence with a willingness to talk, Pyongyang's current sound track has been greeted warily in Seoul and Washington. Intense wariness is now deeply ingrained in the diplomats now dealing with the regime. Several senior South Korean officials tell TIME that, at best, they are now, as one put it, "skeptically optimistic, if that makes any sense."

The good news, sources in Seoul say, is that the South Korean government and the Obama Administration are "not only on the same page, but on the same paragraph" when it comes to dealing with the North, as one adviser to President Lee Myung Bak put it recently. One senior diplomat adds that his "gut instinct" is that the North will in fact return relatively soon to the nuclear bargaining table. But even if that happens, Seoul concurs with Bosworth's assessment, on returning from Pyongyang last month, that the sequencing of reciprocal steps by the two sides is likely to prove nettlesome when talks resume.

Pyongyang's Jan. 11 statement seeking a peace treaty only reinforced the impression that the North may want to put the cart before the horse. U.S. officials, sources tell TIME, have tried to communicate to Pyongyang via its key ally, China, that it's nukes first, then everything else (economic and energy aid, negotiations toward a peace treaty, formal diplomatic ties).

If the diplomatic rumor mill in East Asia can be believed, Kim Jong Il — clearly back in charge, sources in Seoul say, after his stroke in September 2008 — is said to be readying for a visit to Beijing to meet with President Hu Jintao. (Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu, showing if nothing else that the Chinese have mastered the art of the nondenial denial, said that she had "not heard of such news.")

The truth is, even if the North does come back to talk, and even if it accepts the nukes-first sequencing demanded by the U.S. and its allies, everyone has been down this road so often before that few are willing to predict what happens after that. Suh Jae Jean, president of the influential Korea Institute for National Unification government think tank in Seoul, believes that this time the North will do a credible deal on its nuclear program. "But," he adds, "I know I'm about the only optimist left standing these days." In Washington and Seoul, not to mention Tokyo, Beijing and Moscow, somber realism, not giddy optimism, is the prevailing sentiment on North Korea diplomacy. When dealing with Pyongyang, that's about as good as it gets.

— With reporting by Stephen Kim / Seoul