North Korea is widely expected to return to another round of talks aimed at ending its nuclear ambitions amid deepening economic woes, but the move would be far from signaling complete and irreversible denuclearization, sources and experts said yesterday.
"The resumption of the six-nation talks seems a given next step for the North, as it has to make some effort to receive gifts, but the current economic situation in the North is not so bad that Pyongyang is ready to forfeit its nuclear weapons and regime," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies here.
The North has many times reiterated that its nuclear weapons programs are its source of regime security.
Recent reports showed that the North Korean economy may be at its worst, with a record number of people dying of starvation in provincial areas.
A report by Good Friends, a North Korean human rights group, said in its recent newsletter that many died of hunger in South Pyeongan Province, following a similar report last month that people starved to death in the Hamgyeong region.
As a further indication of a worsening recession, Pyongyang has been increasingly focusing on economic improvement in many of its editorials and broadcasts.
In a rare move, it also came out to meet South Korean officials on adjusting the business conditions of the joint industrial park in Gaeseong, which previously served as a major cash cow for the North.
Pyongyang even indicated to Washington that it "understood" the need for the resumption of the six-nation dialogue.
The severe economic difficulties may have originiated from the toughened United Nations sanctions levied on the North following its second nuclear test last year, experts agreed.
Pyongyang has been rendered virtually incapable of weapons exporting due to the sanctions.
But pundits also were quick to point out that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il was still unlikely to forfeit his regime or nuclear weapons any time soon.
"This does not mean that the sanctions were ineffective, or that they were uncalled for. It simply means that the North will try everything it can to get through this rough patch by buying time. Such efforts could include another round of nuclear talks," said Kim Tae-woo, vice president of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses.
In return for coming back to the six-nation talks, the North may try to strike a deal with China.
Wang Jiarui, head of the Chinese Communist Party`s international liaison department, was in the North earlier this year. His trip spawned reports that the North has secured a substantial amount of foreign capital.
Speculation is rampant that Wang`s visit, which was followed by North`s chief nuclear negotiator Kim Gye-gwan`s visit to Beijing, signals the prelude to another round of the six-party talks.
"This is another form of buying time," Yang said. "Their deal with China would be that they come back to the six-nation talks as quid pro quo for economic benefits."
The North is well aware that China would prefer to keep it afloat rather than see a meltdown as it would mean an exodus of North Korean refugees.
The real situation in the North, however, remains under wraps as Pyongyang maintains its status quo.
"If you see change in Pyongyang, then they are in real trouble," said Yang.
Jack Pritchard, president of the Washington-based Korea Economic Institute, who was in the North in November last year, said he saw no substantial changes in Pyongyang after the U.N. sanctions were put in place.
By Kim Ji-hyun