Stephen Bosworth is scheduled to stay for three days and meet top North Korean officials, but not leader Kim Jong-il, for talks analysts see likely to lead to a pledge from Pyongyang to end its boycott of nuclear discussions but not to breakthroughs.
A senior U.S. official said Bosworth wanted to assess whether the North really planned to return to negotiations and abide by a four-year-old pledge to give up building an atomic arsenal in return for massive aid and security guarantees.
Bosworth flew from an airbase near Seoul and landed at an airport on the outskirts of Pyongyang with his delegation, a one-line dispatch by the North's official KCNA news agency said.
Kim signaled in October during a visit to Pyongyang by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao that his state could return to the six-way nuclear talks if the United States dispatched an envoy.
Even if North Korea shows positive signs and revives pledges to take apart its plutonium-producing nuclear plant and allow in nuclear inspectors, it has a habit of breaking deals and scuttling hopes.
"The worst outcome is North Korea's continued intransigence and a demand for U.S. apologies and removal of (U.N.) sanctions," Victor Cha, a former member of the U.S. delegation to the six-way talks under President George W. Bush, said in a newsletter for the Center For Strategic & International Studies.
ECONOMY A FACTOR
Analysts have said the North's broken economy may be forcing it back to the bargaining table, where it hopes to win aid.
The North was hit with fresh U.N. sanctions after its nuclear test in May that cut into its sale of arms, the main export item, perhaps worth more than $1 billion, for the state with an estimated $17 billion yearly GDP.
The Bosworth visit is likely to be trumpeted by the North's propaganda machine as a victory for leader Kim Jong-il, whose military first rule and nuclear weapons program have forced Washington to come to Pyongyang with concessions.
A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said on Monday in Washington that Bosworth would not be offering any new inducements.
But he said any return to negotiations would enable Pyongyang to once again seek economic assistance offered under the 2005 framework -- a strong incentive for a government facing both U.N. sanctions and a U.S. Treasury effort to target its finances.
Bosworth's visit could be extended beyond three days if progress was being made, the U.S. official said.
"If they are ready to go, we are confident that the chair of the talks would be ready to reconvene those talks," the official said, referring to the stalled six-way talks hosted by China and also involving South Korea, Japan, Russia and the United States.
"If there are specific issues that the North wants to raise in terms of how to get them restarted, obviously we would listen to that."
In Geneva, the United States pushed for more scrutiny of human rights conditions in North Korea, telling the U.N. Human Rights Council that it was now impossible to verify claims of abuses in the isolated communist state.
(Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn in Washington and Jon Herskovitz in Seoul and Laura MacInnis in Geneva; editing by Jonathan Thatcher and Jeremy Laurence)