Much anticipated talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons program have begun in Beijing. Negotiators from China, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Russia, and the United States did not speak to waiting reporters as they arrived at Beijing's Diaoyutai state guesthouse early Wednesday. They immediately began work behind closed doors.
Inside, Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Wang Yi, China's chief negotiator at the talks, welcomed the delegates and called the negotiations a new beginning in the process of ending a 10-month old crisis.
Representatives smiled and shook hands.
The chief U.S. negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, sat next to North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Yong Il. The two, however, are far apart on the key issue going into the talks: U.S. demands for North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.
The crisis began in October, when the United States said North Korea had a secret nuclear program in violation of its international commitments to remain nuclear-free. Since then, Pyongyang has admitted having the program, and withdrawn from the global nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The United States wants full, verifiable nuclear disarmament in North Korea. Pyongyang wants Washington to sign a pact of non-aggression before it considers giving up its nuclear ambitions - something the United States has ruled out.
Negotiators are going into the three-day talks with only guarded optimism, and many have said they do not expect a concrete or immediate breakthrough. Analysts say North Koreans have a record of being difficult negotiators, and many say the best possible outcome from these talks is an agreement to meet again.
University of Michigan professor Kenneth Lieberthal, on a recent visit to Beijing, said general distrust is likely to be an obstacle to any significant progress. "Going into the negotiation, is the U.S. prepared to take yes for an answer? Which is to say, if North Korea comes into this negotiation prepared to do a deal to give up its nuclear program, is the Bush administration prepared to accept the deal," asks Mr. Lieberthal. "Or, is the bottom line of the [Bush] administration that there must be a regime change in North Korea with because no deal with Kim Jong Il is worth having, right, given his lack of full implementation of previous deals."
China, as mediator and North Korea's close ally, has a tough role. Beijing hopes to maintain its influence on North Korea, which it supplies with much-needed food and fuel. At the same time, China has joined the United States, Japan, South Korea and Russia in saying it wants to see the Korean Peninsula nuclear-free.
Deputy Foreign Minister Wang Yi, however, on Tuesday warned Beijing would oppose any efforts to impose sanctions on North Korea, should the negotiations fail to yield an agreement.