Senior US and North Korean diplomats began talks on Pyongyang's controversial nuclear programme on Thursday, in the first substantive contact between the two nations since leader Kim Jong-Il died.
Glyn Davies, coordinator for US policy on North Korea, and other officials met with a delegation from Pyongyang headed by veteran negotiator Kim Kye-Gwan for talks on denuclearisation, non-proliferation and humanitarian aid.
Davies will attempt to seek clarity on what policies North Korea's new and untested leader Kim Jong-Un plans for his nation and try to work with Pyongyang to resume multilateral talks aimed at ending its nuclear weapons programme.
"My hope is that we can find a way to move forward with the North, because it's in everyone's interest to try to get onto the next phase, which will be six-party talks," Davies told reporters Wednesday after landing in Beijing.
North Korea abandoned the six-nation talks in April 2009 because of what it described as US hostility, and conducted a nuclear test the following month to international condemnation.
The negotiations are chaired by China and also include Japan, the two Koreas, Russia and the United States.
Thursday's talks between the North and the United States are the third since July. The two sides were scheduled to meet in December, but the plan was shelved after Kim's death on December 17 and the subsequent transition of power to his son Kim Jong-Un.
"What precisely his (Kim Jong-Un's) policies are, in what direction he wants to take his country -- all of these are unknowns at this stage," Davies said.
"I find it a positive sign that relatively soon after the beginning of the transition in North Korea, the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) has chosen to get back to the table with us. That's a good thing."
Analysts say Pyongyang -- which has said it wants to return to the six-party talks, albeit without any preconditions -- may be eager to resume discussions with Washington to show the regime is operating as it was before Kim's death.
The United States has been exploring a resumption of the talks but insists that Pyongyang take steps to shut down its uranium enrichment facilities and ease tensions with South Korea before restarting the multilateral forum.
Analysts suggest that if North Korea agrees to these preconditions, the United States will also pledge to provide much-needed food assistance to the impoverished country.
China -- North Korea's main ally -- is also keen for the six-party talks to resume, and foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei on Wednesday said Beijing hoped the bilateral meetings would create conditions for their early resumption.
"China is willing to work with all parties to continue to play a constructive role for this," he said.
Davies, who is accompanied by Clifford Hart -- US special envoy for the six-party talks -- will also meet his Chinese counterpart Wu Dawei on his trip to China, before leaving on Saturday for South Korea.