WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States and North Korea will meet on Thursday in New York to explore resuming nuclear disarmament talks frozen for two years while Pyongyang added to its atomic arsenal and raised regional tensions.
A U.S. delegation led by Special Envoy to North Korea Stephen Bosworth will host a North Korean team headed by Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan, a veteran nuclear negotiator.
When Washington announced the rare trip to the United States by Kim, Obama administration officials stressed they were in no hurry to resume six-nation nuclear talks that were last held under the Bush administration, in late 2008.
North Korea angrily quit the six-party process -- which also includes China, Japan, Russia and South Korea -- after the isolated state's 2009 nuclear test was met with U.N. Security Council sanctions. It also tested an atomic device in 2006.
Washington expects Pyongyang to show willingness to live up to denuclearization pledges made during earlier rounds of six-party talks, State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner said on Wednesday.
"This will be an exploratory meeting to determine if North Korea is prepared to fulfill its commitments under the 2005 joint statement of the six-party talks and its international obligations, as well as take concrete and irreversible steps towards denuclearization," he told a news conference.
The 2005 document signed by the six countries spelled out a process in which North Korea would scrap its nuclear programs in exchange for economic and energy aid and diplomatic relations with the United States and Japan.
North Korea set out some terms of its own, repeating its calls for a peace treaty to replace the truce that ended the 1950-1953 Korean War.
"Concluding a peace agreement may be the first step for settling the Korean issue, including denuclearization," said a commentary by Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency.
U.S. mistrust of Pyongyang is strong because the 2005 agreement was the second nuclear disarmament deal with North Korea to fall apart, following the 2003 collapse of a 1994 disarmament deal over U.S. allegations Pyongyang was building a secret uranium enrichment program. North Korea acknowledged in 2010 it had a uranium enrichment program and displayed it to visitors.
"The U.S. must be careful to avoid buying the same horse for a third time," said Victor Cha, a Georgetown University Asia expert who took part in the last sets of six-party talks as a member of then-President George W. Bush's security team.
The talks at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, set for Thursday and Friday, follow a flurry of contacts between North Korea and South Korea that signal a lowering of tensions on the divided peninsula since two attacks last year blamed on the North killed 50 South Koreans.
South Korea has softened its earlier stance that made an apology from North Korea over the 2010 attacks the precondition for resuming dialogue.
"As for South Korea, it cannot allow inter-Korean relations to remain frozen with the general and presidential elections looming. It also needs to consider Washington's position," the conservative South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo said in an editorial this week.
But the paper said reconvening nuclear talks without a show of seriousness from North Korea "will only lead to a repeat of the spiral that made past rounds of the six-party talks look so futile."
The United States and China, North Korea's sole ally and main aid donor, have agreed on a three-stage process to resume six-party talks. The first stage is the two Koreas engaging bilaterally, the second involves talks between the North and the United States, and the third stage is the six-party talks.
Although absent from the New York talks, six-party talks host China is expected to play a key role in the process.
"China does not want North Korea to engage in the kind of confrontations we have seen from it of late. It has been working hard to get North Korea to return to talks, and that has probably included putting pressure to a degree on North Korea," said Cai Jian, a professor of Korean studies at Fudan University in Shanghai.
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing and Jeremy Laurence in Seoul; editing by David Alexander and Mohammad Zargham)