World and Nation

North Korea is talking, but Panetta is skeptical

SEOUL, South Korea — Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta cast doubt Thursday on talks aimed at persuading North Korea to abandon its nuclear program despite more positive public comments from negotiators for both countries earlier this week.

“I guess the word skepticism would be in order at this time as to what may or may not happen in those discussions,” Panetta told reporters in Seoul, where he met Thursday with the South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak.

Although Panetta said there some indications of progress in the negotiations, he also said, “We’re not sure where those talks are headed at this point.”

He was referring to two days of talks between United States and North Korean officials this week that were aimed at restarting more formal six-nation negotiations about North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Panetta was also referring to the tortured six-nation talks themselves. Officials concluded this week’s exploratory talks, held in Geneva, by saying they had narrowed their differences about future negotiations. But the officials parted without fixing a date for talks of any kind. Nonetheless, on Tuesday the U.S. special envoy to the negotiations, Stephen W. Bosworth, called the two-day talks in Geneva “very positive and generally constructive.”

Panetta’s more skeptical view mirrored that of U.S. military officials here, who in a briefing to reporters Thursday expressed strong distrust of North Korea’s motives in the talks.

The officials said North Korea had engaged in the exploratory talks — and had been more accommodating in recent months — because its leaders were eager for food, fuel, currency and economic aid to help support national celebrations planned for 2012. The celebrations are for the 100-year anniversary of the birth of the late Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea.

The military officials, who asked for anonymity under ground rules imposed by the U.S. military command in Korea, said they feared that the North Koreans were talking simply to extract concessions without planning to give up their nuclear weapons, a view shared by some policy makers in Washington.

“We can’t approach the negotiation from the perspective of not having any hope of its success,” one of the officials said. “But I think there’s a great deal of skepticism.”

In a 2005 deal during six-party talks, North Korea agreed to give up its nuclear program in return for economic and diplomatic incentives. But that agreement came apart after North Korea conducted a nuclear test in 2006 and then pulled out of the talks entirely.