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Kim Jong Il Death: North Korea Talks With U.S. On Hold -- For Now

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Kim Jong Il inspects a fruit farm in an undated photo released in May 2011.
Kim Jong Il inspects a fruit farm in an undated photo released in May 2011.

WASHINGTON -- On the day after North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's death was announced to the world, top American diplomats were due to meet at the State Department to discuss their latest talks with the departed leader's regime.

It had been a busy weekend of negotiations with the North Koreans. Meeting in Beijing, envoys for the State Department had all but reached a deal to resume delivery of food aid, the Associated Press reported late Sunday -- just hours before Kim's death was made public.

The deal for food aid, reported to be 240,000 tons of high-protein biscuits and vitamins over the course of a year, would be just the first tangible step in a delicate dance of engagement that dates back many months and numerous meetings in Beijing, Geneva and the United Nations. U.S. officials hoped it would culminate in talks about, and possibly suspension of, North Korea's advanced nuclear weapons program.

Kim Jong Il had reportedly agreed to suspend the enrichment of uranium while talks proceeded, something the Americans had insisted upon as a precondition for any advanced negotiations.

Now, with Kim dead, and the enigmatic nation in the hands of his mysterious youngest son, Kim Jong Un, American officials are struggling to figure out what might become of those late-stage talks.

"We obviously will keep looking at this issue internally, and we, as I said, did have good conversations last week," said State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland on Monday, signaling that the talks at the very least were on hold while the North Koreans entered into a period of "national mourning."

"We need to see where they are and where they go as they move through their transition period," she said. "Meetings that might have happened today with our travelers who just got back instead were focused on maintaining close contact with our other partners in the Six-Party Talks, and on ensuring calm and regional stability on the peninsula. We have yet to have the internal review of these issues that we need to have."

Several former State Department negotiators told The Huffington Post that, given the circumstances, a certain amount of confusion and halting steps were to be expected.

"People are obviously in a state of some puzzlement and that's probably driving this," said Evans Revere, a former negotiator and now a senior director of the Albright Stonebridge Group. "We'll see. This is, obviously, early days."

But while some reports have indicated that the negotiations may be largely thwarted by Kim Jong Il's death, a senior State Department official told The Huffington Post that the talks are expected to proceed apace, after the mourning period.

"No one is talking about delaying," the official said, adding that it's simply "not likely we'll see additional movement any time soon." The official also denied that any final decisions had been made about food aid at the discussions last week.

It's next to impossible to know what the new North Korean leader might have in mind for his nation's relationship with the West; even basic facts about him, like his exact age -- he is said to be either 27 or 28 -- are still unknown to much of the world.

Several analysts have speculated that Kim Jong Un might attempt a radical move -- perhaps a military strike or more aggressive missile tests, like the one carried out early Monday morning in the Yellow Sea -- in an effort to burnish his legitimacy as a powerful leader.

Victor Cha, a Bush administration official who worked on North Korea issues, wrote in an essay in the Financial Times that the new leader is so unknown and unestablished that engaging with him right away "is not advisable."

Other experts and former negotiators argue that, barring signs of a radical shift in policy from the North Koreans, the Americans' best option for the moment would be to patiently hold course.

"The North Koreans are on a certain trajectory which is not so bad compared to where they were a year and a half ago," said Joel Wit, another former diplomat and one of the founders of the Korean Peninsular Energy Development Organization. "I would argue that we need to continue on this trajectory and wait to see what the North Koreans say, and we need to see if there's continuity in their policy. The pause button is fine, we should wait for the North Koreans to see what they should do. But for us to back away is a mistake."

"We're in a new world," Revere said. "The era of Kim Jong Il is over and a new era is about to begin, the shape of which is not very clear."

"One of the things that to keep in mind is that while the death may have been sudden, it was not unexpected," Revere added. "The North Koreans have been preparing for this day for years, if not months. So I think the first thing everybody needs to do is take a deep breath and realize, yeah, we are in a kind of new era because we've got a new person in charge, but we are in a place they've been preparing to be in for quite a bit of time."

Leon Sigal, the director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project and an expert on North Korean diplomacy, said that in 1994, when Kim Jong Il's father passed away, the Clinton administration was similarly in an advanced stage of negotiations with the regime, something it managed to continue for some time with the new leadership. That situation seems to have replicated itself today.

"Kim Jong Il did this, he put himself on the line to say that he was ready to suspend enrichment," Sigal said. "The question is, can Kim Jong Un put himself in those footsteps? Nobody knows what this guy is going to be for."

Several analysts said Monday that the course for future negotiations -- and the intentions of Kim Jong Un -- should be revealed as soon as the coming days. If it takes longer than that for negotiations to restart, it could be a sign of trouble.

"If we get into next year, given the discussions that have already taken place on this, one might begin to think that the period of likely opportunity was beginning to pass," said Scott Snyder, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, during a briefing for reporters Monday.

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