In Beijing, the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons program have resumed.
The United States has been saying since October 2002 that North Korea has a secret nuclear weapons program. Since then, Pyongyang has pulled out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, expelled United Nations monitors, re-opened a nuclear facility it had promised to dismantle in 1994 and announced that it has developed some nuclear devices, though that claim has not been independently verified.
Daryl Kimball, who heads the Arms Control Association, an independent research organization, says the situation is serious, given what is happening in one area.
"With every day that passes, North Korea's nuclear potential increases, because it is operating a set of facilities at Yongbyon that are churning out some quantities of plutonium. We don't know how much. So there is no time to waste," said Mr. Kimball.
That view is shared by former Ambassador Tom Graham, who has been involved in every major arms control negotiation in the last 30 years.
"It may well be that North Korea possesses nuclear devices, which is a scary prospect, frankly, both because of the destabilizing effect of these weapons in northeast Asia and also because of a long history of North Korea of transferring to whoever will buy their technology, including missiles and related weaponry," he said.
For the past several years, the United States has been trying to persuade North Korea to eliminate its nuclear weapons capabilities. That effort has been conducted through the negotiating forum known as the six-party talks, bringing together the United States, China, Russia, Japan, South Korea and North Korea.
Since August 2003, diplomats from the six countries met four times, the last session for about two weeks in Beijing, last month.
Mr. Kimball says one of the key issues facing negotiators is the question whether or not North Korea should be permitted to have any nuclear program.
"The U.S. and the other parties want North Korea to clearly disavow nuclear weapons and commit to the dismantlement of their nuclear weapons program," he added. "One of the sticking points, however, is that the North Koreans don't want to dismantle all of their nuclear programs. They claim that they have a right to peaceful nuclear energy production. The U.S. is understandably skeptical that North Korea can have a peaceful nuclear program and not divert, some of it, at least, to military purposes."
Experts say one of Pyongyang's key demands is for economic incentives in exchange for nuclear disarmament.
Leonard Spector is a nuclear expert with the Monterey Institute of International Studies. He says countries have already offered assistance to North Korea.
"One incentive, which seemed to have jump-started the talks, was an offer from South Korea to provide 2,000 megawatts of electricity, that is the equivalent of two big nuclear power plants," he said. "The South Korean offer was to build the facilities, whatever they would be - fossil or nuclear - in South Korea and transport the electricity over the demilitarized zone into North Korea. That would have an enormous impact, a positive impact, on the North Korean economy. The Japanese have promised $1 billion in assistance or more for compensating for the Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula in the 1930s and 1940s. So I think there is plenty of money on the table."
But Mr. Spector says negotiators have been unable to get the North Koreans to discuss details of a possible economic assistance package.
Experts also say North Korea wants security guarantees, especially against a military attack. Mr. Spector says it is unlikely the United States would take such action.
"If I were sitting in North Korea, I wouldn't be too worried. We know the United States is tied down in Iraq," said Mr. Spector. "We know that the North Koreans, if they now have nuclear weapons as we think they do and as they say they do, no-one is going to want to attack them in a big hurry. It is simply too dangerous. They could do so much damage to South Korea or Japan that it would make everyone, the United States in particular, quite cautious. So I don't think that they are genuinely worried about an invasion. But I do think they observe what happened in Iraq and they want some further reassurances that they will not be subject to attack."
Chief U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill has already said on several occasions that Washington had no plans to attack North Korea.
But Daryl Kimball, from the Arms Control Association, says Mr. Hill's comments are not enough.
"Assurances from Chris Hill are helpful, but Chris Hill is not the president of the United States," added Mr. Kimball. "And so I think the North Koreans are probably looking for something that is firmer than oral assurances from their chief interlocutor."
Experts say for the six-party talks to progress, all sides must first agree on a declaration of principles that will guide their negotiations. Only then could they move on to the difficult task of discussing economic incentives for North Korea in exchange for Pyongyang's dismantlement of its nuclear program.
Experts say that if the talks fail, the United States may refer the matter to the U.N. Security Council, seeking economic and political sanctions against Pyongyang.