Last week, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao visited the impoverished North, which relies heavily on outside assistance to feed its people, armed with a reportedly $20 million aid package. In return, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il told Wen he would rejoin six-party nuclear disarmament negotiations if direct talks with the U.S. were fruitful.
Wen's trip came as North Korea began to take a series of conciliatory steps after months of raising tensions including staging nuclear and missile tests. Analysts say the about-face shows the regime is feeling the pain of U.N. sanctions adopted with Chinese support to punish Pyongyang for the May nuclear test.
Victor Cha, a former deputy American nuclear negotiator for North Korea, said that China's "fairly substantial package of assistance" could lead to the repetition of a failed negotiating pattern with North Korea.
"We end up in the same cycle, which is they get some assistance to come back to talks. There is some negotiation that leads to some interim steps. There is another crisis, another provocation and the cycle starts all over again," Cha said at a forum in Seoul on the nuclear standoff.
A phase like the one Cha described appears to just have ended. North Korea agreed in 2007 to disable its nuclear facilities in return for international aid. In June last year, it blew up the cooling tower at its main nuclear complex in a show of its commitment. But its denuclearization soon came to a halt as it wrangled with Washington over how to verify its past nuclear activities.
Cha also said he suspects the North appears to be trying to win recognition as a nuclear state like India.
Now a Georgetown University professor, Cha criticized Beijing for trying to take a "neutral position," instead of aggressively seeking to denuclearize North Korea.
China is North Korea's last remaining major ally, and as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, it wields the authority to block sanctions resolutions or water them down.