REPORTING FROM SEOUL -– Negotiators from the U.S. and North Korea met Thursday in Beijing to begin talks about Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program, the first such diplomatic face-off since North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's death in December.
The bilateral talks, led by Pyongyang's longtime nuclear negotiator, Kim Kye-gwan, and the U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, Glyn Davies, could signal whether new North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is ready to dismantle his nation's nuclear arsenal.
North Korea, suffering through yet another harsh winter without enough staples to feed its population, stands to gain food aid and economic help in return for concessions on its nuclear program.
"Today is, as we say, 'game day.' We will have an opportunity to meet with First Vice Foreign Minister Kim and his team," Davies said before talks started at the North Korean Embassy in Beijing, according to the Associated Press.
Late last year, Washington had reportedly been close to a deal to provide food to North Korea in exchange for suspension of its uranium enrichment program. But the deal was sidelined by Kim Jong Il's death on Dec. 17.
The two sides last met in July.
Washington also hopes to restart the six-party disarmament negotiations that involve the two countries and China, Japan, Russia and South Korea. Pyongyang left those negotiations in 2009 and later set off its second nuclear device.
Davies praised North Korea for agreeing to reenter talks so soon after Kim Jong Il's death, amid a transfer of power to his youngest son and a group of advisors.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in Washington that the United States was "cautiously optimistic" about the talks.
-- John M. Glionna
A Chinese policeman guards the North Korean Embassy in Beijing, where North Korea and the U.S. held nuclear talks Thursday morning. Credit: Yonhap / EPA