With cautious optimism, U.S. holds first talks with North Korea since Kim Jong-Il’s death

U.S. and North Korean envoys met Thursday in Beijing for their first talks since the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il on December 17th.

"Today is, as we say, 'game day,'" U.S. envoy on North Korean affairs Glyn Davies told journalists ahead of the talks with his North Korean counterpart Kim Kye Gwan, according to the Washington Post. "We will have an opportunity to meet with First Vice Foreign Minister Kim and his team."

Envoys from the two nations last met in July, when they reportedly came close to finalizing an agreement under which Pyongyang would have allowed the return of nuclear inspectors in exchange for a large U.S. food aid package.

State Department officials expressed cautious optimism ahead of what they termed "exploratory talks," which took place at a morning session Thursday at Pyongyang's Beijing embassy, and in a later session at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

"We're always cautiously optimistic that there will be a new spirit to these consultations, but let's let them play out," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Wednesday at a State Department press briefing.

As to whether the U.S. food aid package was still on the table, Toner said it would be discussed. "As you know, we had some concerns," said Toner. "We were asking for the North Koreans to respond to those concerns."

Despite Washington's cautious optimism, Asia analysts said the signals coming from Pyongyang going into the exploratory talks were tense. Asia analyst Chris Nelson noted that Pyongyang is irritated that it has not been invited to an international summit on securing loose nuclear material that is due to take place next month in Seoul, South Korea.

"Pyongyang's contribution to the overall atmosphere was to warn South Korean president Lee Myung-bak that what the DPRK calls his failure to invite them to the Mar. 26-27 Nuclear Security Summit is 'an intolerable grave provocation' and 'an intolerable crime,'" wrote Nelson, an Asia expert with Samuels International consultancy, Wednesday in his eponymous foreign policy analysis, the Nelson Report.

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