When he flew into Pyongyang to make the Barack Obama administration's first official contact with Kim Jong-il's regime on Tuesday, Stephen Bosworth was occupying arguably the hottest seat in East Asian diplomacy: he is the man America has chosen to denuclearise North Korea. If a truckload of diplomatic experience, a low-key public profile and a hefty dose of good luck are the core qualifications for the role of US special representative for North Korean policy, then Bosworth appears well-chosen. He has his work cut out, however. After two days of talks with North Korea's foreign minister, he returned empty-handed on Thursday. Pyongyang watchers were not surprised: they say that the US administration has been sending all the wrong messages to the North. A career diplomat, Bosworth, 69, was US ambassador to Tunisia from 1979 to 1981 and to the Philippines from 1984 to 1987. His engagement with the Korean Peninsula started in 1995 when, for two years, he was executive director of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organisation, the body formed to implement key points of the 1994 Agreed Framework that attempted to freeze North Korea's nuclear programme in exchange for light water reactors supplied by the international community. Bosworth was then made Washington's ambassador to Seoul, where he served from 1997 to 2001. His predecessor as special envoy to North Korea was the charismatic Christopher Hill - a disciple of US foreign policy elder statesmen Richard Holbrooke, and a key architect of the Dayton peace accords in Bosnia. As former president George W. Bush's special envoy to North Korea, Hill - who is now US ambassador to Iraq - was renowned for his outspokenness and his media savvy. Academic in both appearance and outlook, Bosworth is less action-oriented, more cerebral - a posture that may suit the North Koreans, who prefer closed back-door talks to media diplomacy. During a stopover in Seoul before flying to Pyongyang, he avoided the media. He played down expectations, and despite swirling rumours about a possible offer of missile and nuclear testing moratoriums to come from Pyongyang, he would only say that he hoped to restart the on-again, off-again six-party nuclear talks in Beijing. Sure enough, he returned with no breakthrough. Yet throughout his career, Bosworth has been in the right place at the right time - and has had the good fortune to avoid the disasters that befell some of his predecessors and successors. In the Philippines, he was not present for the assassination of Ninoy Aquino in 1983, but was ambassador during the 'people power' revolution that tossed the dictatorial Ferdinand Marcos from office in 1986. As head of the Korean development organisation, he oversaw its most hopeful, early phase. After his and his successors' tenures, the programme fell into permanent limbo when the Bush administration, citing intelligence, accused Pyongyang of having a secret uranium-based nuclear enrichment programme in 2002. That accusation, and the concurrent breach of the Agreed Framework, triggered the current North Korean nuclear crisis. (To date, the North Koreans have never admitted that they had such a programme at that time; nor have the Americans come forward with proof of the alleged programme.) As US ambassador to South Korea, Bosworth oversaw the Bill Clinton administration's last-minute engagement with Pyongyang, when secretary of state Madeline Albright met Kim Jong-il in October 2000 - three months before the end of the Clinton years. That visit was encouraged by then-South Korean president Kim Dae-jung, whose 'sunshine policy' was crowned with the first inter-Korean summit in the summer of 2000. Bosworth left the Seoul embassy in February 2001, so was out of the line of fire by the time of Bush's characterisation of North Korea as part of the 'axis of evil' in 2002 - a move that flew in the face of the South's policy of engagement with its neighbour. As a result, South Korea-US relations turned frigid. Bosworth - named to his current position in February by US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, under whose husband his most high-profile work took place - will need all his nous and good fortune to deal with the thus-far intractable problem of North Korea. This is because, analysts say, Obama's administration, in urging the North Korean regime to denuclearise, has been sending all the wrong messages to the hermit state. In a November 14 speech, the US president, expanding upon previous statements, said: 'Instead of an isolation that has compounded the horrific repression of its own people, North Korea could have a future of international integration. Instead of gripping poverty, it could have a future of economic opportunity - where trade, investment and tourism can offer the North Korean people the chance of a better life.' However, the leadership is aware that its decrepit conventional military - its vehicles starved of fuel and its soldiers undernourished - is no match for a combined South Korean-US force, meaning the nuclear option is its only guarantee of security and relevance. 'Everything they say comes from a hardcore, realist paradigm: International Relations 101,' said Dan Pinkston, who heads the International Crisis Group's Seoul office. 'They have to have military force to provide for their security, so denuclearisation will be extraordinarily difficult.' Moreover, analysts say, Kim's regime is focused entirely on its own survival, rather than upgrading the quality of people's lives. His cavalier attitude towards public livelihood was displayed in this month's shock currency devaluation. The leadership's survival is, to a considerable extent, predicated on maintaining tight control and not permitting the North Korean people exposure to the outside world - where they would soon discover the reality of their poverty and repression. Thus, Obama's offer is the wrong message to aim at Pyongyang, said Dr Andrei Lankov, a North Korea analyst at Seoul's Kookmin University. 'North Korea does not want denuclearisation and does not want opening,' he said. 'Obama is asking them to do something they do not want to do, for a reward they do not want to accept.' Still, Bosworth's mission is not completely hopeless. Between 2001 and 2007, Seoul and Washington were at odds over how to deal with North Korea. Now, with both nations standing firm on UN sanctions, and with China also taking a harder line with the North's nuclear tests, Pyongyang is facing unprecedented pressure. It may be willing to make certain concessions to the United States. 'I think it is important to the regime to show something to the people,' said Dr Choi Jin-wook, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification. 'If they can reach a breakthrough in relations with the US, they can show vision and hope for recovery.'