It has been a long, frustrating wait for South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and his policy of engagement with North Korea. For the first time since the inauguration of US President George W. Bush's administration 18 months ago, Washington is sending a team of senior officials to Pyongyang to see if North Korea is serious about ending its state of isolation. The talks will cover a host of sensitive issues such as nuclear inspection and halting missile exports to rogue nations. An eight-member delegation led by James Kelly, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, is due to arrive in Pyongyang this morning. It is a mission designed to see if the South Korean president has been right in pushing a policy of engagement with the North over the past four years, and if so, whether the US should follow the lead of Japan to induce the North to open up and reform economically. Mr Kelly hopes to tackle five major topics: United Nations inspection of suspect nuclear facilities, missile development and exports, the need to pull back the North's conventional arms deployment from the demilitarised zone, inspection of biological and chemical weapons depots and human rights abuses. The roster is long and complicated but the North's readiness to discuss these issues shows how much it has modified its hard-line stance in the last few months, analysts say. In the past, the North has refused to talk about missile development, saying it was a sovereign matter. Missile exports would be discussed only within the framework of what it called compensatory measures such as payment of up to US$1 billion (HK$7.8 billion) a year for halting exports. At policy consultation meetings in Seoul yesterday, Mr Kelly and his team, which includes Jack Pritchard, the State Department's special envoy on Korea, focused on steps taken by North Korean leader Kim Jong-il on economic management. South Korean officials, headed by presidential security adviser Lim Dong-won and his deputy, Yim Sung-joon, reportedly argued that the US should not miss this opportunity to grasp the North Korean leader's steady moves toward opening up and reform. No one needs the mission to be a success more than Kim Dae-jung. With only five months to go before the end of his term as South Korean leader, Mr Kim is virtually under siege for disregarding the high cost and common sense in pursuing his engagement policy. On top of corruption scandals engulfing his three sons he has been accused of bribing the North with a large cash gift to buy its agreement for an historic summit in Pyongyang in June 2000. The opposition Grand National Party claims Mr Kim's senior officials secretly approved a state bank 'loan' of US$400 million, ostensibly for the Hyundai business group but really for Kim Jong-il. At his landmark summit meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi last month, the North Korean leader apologised for the kidnapping of Japanese citizens by his secret agents and pledged to hold diplomatic normalisation talks. His other initiatives have been equally eye-catching. He has expressed regret over the North Korean navy attack on a South Korean patrol vessel in June in which five South Korean sailors were killed. Last month, the North agreed to clear mines at the border to reopen road and rail links with the South for the first time since 1948. Kwak Tae-hwan, an expert on North-South relations, said: 'It's Kim Jong-il who's coming under pressure to change course, not the Bush administration.' He said the North Korean leader was facing a new round of food shortages as UN officials diverted aid to Africa. Big donors such as Japan were tired of feeding a country that bites the hand that feeds it. Analysts say he does not have much of a choice: he can slowly head towards more disaster or assure his survival by coming to terms with Washington. As the US holds the key to North Korea's access to multilateral agencies such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank, making peace with Washington has become a vital concern. This is why he has asked Mr Koizumu to talk to Washington on his behalf, saying 'our doors are open'. He has even offered to suspend missile testing beyond a moratorium that ends next year. Mr Bush's hardline stance on the North, backed by the spectre of the Iraq invasion, has clearly sobered the North into rethinking its terms. In Seoul, officials have their fingers crossed on Mr Kelly's trip. 'I'm cautiously optimistic,' Mr Kwak said. One analyst said: 'Kim Jong-il has shown us he is capable of springing surprises. This time, he could come up with initiatives to please the Kelly mission.' Seoul will be holding its breath that this happens.