SINGAPORE - North Korean and American envoys are due to hold unofficial talks in Singapore today that observers say could give a measure of how serious the reclusive regime is about curbing its nuclear ambitions.
The North has been on a charm offensive in recent months, sending representatives to South Korea, the US and Europe as well as releasing two long-held American prisoners.
But analysts remain deeply sceptical over whether these moves mark a temporary change caused by ongoing economic duress or a more fundamental shift in the thinking of the Kim Jong Un regime.
Washington pundits largely believe it is a case of the former, noting for instance that the State Department has made it very clear it has no expectations from the Singapore talks.
The meeting in Singapore is considered "Track 2" in that it does not involve government-to-government contact. Pyongyang's delegation will be led by North Korea's chief nuclear envoy Ri Yong Ho while the American group is headed by the former US special envoy for North Korea policy Stephen Bosworth.
"It potentially provides context to other discussions. It can be a way of signalling the direction that one side or the other might move in. I don't necessarily feel the US side has any special message to deliver.
The utility is mainly going to come from seeing what the North Koreans have to say about their recent actions," said Mr Scott Snyder, director of the Programme on US-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.
"Usually when the North Koreans agree to these sort of talks, it is because they have something new to say or because they want to get a sense of what is going on on the US side," he added, noting that such dialogue is rare but not unusual.
Still, the willingness of North Korea to come to the table now as well as its recent overtures have ignited a debate in the United States over whether Washington should rethink its "strategic patience" policy, in the same way it recently overhauled its ties with Cuba.
Dr Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Programme at the Centre for a New American Security, said: "Even those who back strategic patience and more sanctions are willing to consider the option of talking with North Korea, but they just are incredulous about the sincerity of the North to change. So they want North Korea to show something before the US moves forward."
Today's meeting comes at the end of an up-and-down year for Washington-Pyongyang relations. Goodwill gestures by North Korea, like the release of US prisoners, had earlier raised hopes that ties would improve, only for both sides to clash over the hacking of Sony Pictures.
There were also awkward moments, like the 12-course dinner for US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper in Pyongyang that ended with the Americans being handed a bill for his share of the meal, and the multiple visits by former basketball star Dennis Rodman to the North.
North Korea also raised eyebrows last week when it proposed a temporary moratorium on its nuclear tests if the US and South Korea cancelled their annual joint military exercise. The proposal was rejected out of hand by the US.
The choice of Singapore as the host for the talks is down to the fact that the country has good relations with both sides, say analysts.
The North Koreans are keen to stay out of China for now, given that bilateral ties have been strained of late.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is said to be growing impatient with the North Korean leader.
And while the US has downplayed the significance of the event, Dr Cronin said that having a meeting of seasoned envoys is better than doing nothing at all: "The likelihood is very, very low that there will be some breakthrough. But if the North Koreans do want to talk and say something, these people are better messengers than Dennis Rodman."
A message board
"It potentially provides context to other discussions. It can be a way of signalling the direction that one side or the other might move in. I don't necessarily feel the US side has any special message to deliver. The utility is mainly going to come from seeing what the North Koreans have to say about their recent actions."
- MR SCOTT SNYDER, director of the Programme on US-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations
This article was first published on Jan 18, 2015.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.