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(News Focus) N. Korea seeking to put onus back on U.S., experts say

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

By Lee Chi-dong

WASHINGTON, Aug. 29 (Yonhap) -- With an invitation for a ranking U.S. government official to visit Pyongyang, North Korea appears to be trying to place the ball in the U.S. court, pundits here said Thursday.

They are skeptical of any major breakthrough in North Korea-U.S. relations, even if the communist regime allows Amb. Robert King to bring detained U.S. citizen Kenneth Bae home.

King, special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, is flying into Pyongyang on Friday (local time) on a mission to negotiate the release of Bae, a 45-year-old who has been detained there for nine months.

Many expect the North to free Bae, given its recent peace initiative towards the U.S. and South Korea. Among the promising signs, the North agreed to normalize the operation of the inter-Korean Kaesong Industrial Complex and organize a reunion of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.

South Korea and the U.S. are playing down Pyongyang's move.

"North Korea's charm offensive is a tactical step largely on humanitarian issues such as the Kaesong industrial park, separated families, and a detained U.S. citizen. There is no fundamental change in the nuclear front," a South Korean official working in Washington, D.C., said.

The Obama administration made clear that it is not linking the Bae issue with denuclearization efforts.

Experts also caution against excessive expectations over King's trip.

"Even if Bae is released to Ambassador King, we should be careful not to over-interpret the significance of such a step," said Evans Revere, former principal deputy assistant secretary of state. "There is absolutely no sign that the DPRK (North Korea) has changed its position on its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs."

Ken Gause, director of the International Affairs Group at Virginia-based CNA research center, agreed that it's still early to be optimistic about Pyongyang-Washington ties.

"While I agree there is a thaw in inter-Korean relations, U.S.-North Korea relations are still in stasis," he said, adding the Obama government's attention is on the Middle East for now.

"Ambassador King's visit could spark an opening if North Korea releases Kenneth Bae. After that, it will depend on whether the U.S. takes China's advice and agrees to come to the six-party talks without precondition," Gause added.

China, host of the long-stalled six-way talks, has pressed the U.S. to resume dialogue with North Korea, while urging Pyongyang to refrain from provocative actions.

The six-way forum, which marked its 10th anniversary this week, also involves South Korea, Russia and Japan. The negotiations were last held in 2008.

Mitchell Reiss, president of Washington College in Maryland, said the U.S. is expected to continue to follow South Korea's lead in dealing with the North.

But he stressed the six-way talks, if restarted, are unlikely to yield any tangible results except for a limited role in reducing tensions on the peninsula.

"A revival of the diplomatic track would contribute to that goal, at least for a while, even if there is no substantive progress," he said.

The experts shared the view that North Korea will not abandon its nuclear program, which is closely tied to the survival of the Kim Jong-un regime.

Kim has stated his goal of pursuing the simultaneous development of the economy and the nuclear program.

After working hard on the nuclear side, the Kim regime is seen as focusing on economic development, an apparent reason for its recent peace overtures aimed at drawing aid from the outside world, according to the South Korean official.

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