The United States said Wednesday it will hold rare direct talks with North Korea next week on ending the authoritarian state's nuclear program and announced it was replacing its chief envoy.
The State Department said that U.S. and North Korean officials will meet Monday and Tuesday in Geneva but insisted that the talks were "exploratory" and that Pyongyang needed to offer proof that it was serious about dialogue.
"What we want to see is a seriousness of purpose," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said, calling for "firm signs" from North Korea that it will adhere to a six-nation agreement in 2005 on denuclearization.
"We're not going, as we have said many times, to reward North Korea just for returning to the table or give them anything new for actions they've agreed to take," Toner told reporters.
But Toner said that U.S. officials sensed a "good atmosphere" when it held initial talks with North Korean officials in July in New York, making the State Department feel that a second round would be useful.
Toner said Stephen Bosworth was stepping down as the U.S. coordinator on North Korea policy and would be replaced by career diplomat Glyn Davies. The two men will head together to Geneva as Bosworth hands over duties.
Bosworth has served as ambassador to three countries but regarded his latest position as a part-time job. He spends much of his time in the Boston area as dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
Toner described Bosworth's resignation as a personal decision and said that it did not indicate any shift on North Korea.
"This is a change in personnel, not a change in policy," Toner said.
"He has been in this job for nearly three years and he does have significant responsibilities in his job at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, so I think he wanted to focus on that," Toner said.
Davies now serves as the U.S. representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Geneva. He has not dealt directly on North Korea but has held a senior position on Asia policy and was formerly the State Department's deputy spokesman.
Victor Cha, who was a top adviser on North Korea to former president George W. Bush, said that the change in personnel "is probably aimed at depoliticizing the policy by avoiding outside appointments."
President Barack Obama has made dialogue a priority in his foreign policy but North Korea until recently was a notable exception, with his administration furious over provocations including a deadly attack last year on a South Korean island.
Cha, who is now a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Georgetown University, said dialogue can help ease tensions, even if the administration insists it is not interested in "talks for talks' sake."
"North Korea leaves you only with bad and worse options. Avoiding dialogue only promises a runaway nuclear program and more provocations," Cha said.
"Dialogue may not get denuclearization, but it does help to manage the situation, avert a crisis ... and possibly offer small victories in freezing elements of the program," he said.
"It's not great, but it may be all we can hope for," he said.
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