American, North Korean and Chinese diplomats meet in Beijing starting Wednesday in the first such talks in six months to tackle Pyongyang's banned nuclear programs. But many analysts say the gathering may do little to quickly end the dispute and the best outcome may be an agreement for more talks.
When Assistant U.S. Secretary of State James Kelly last met with North Korean officials in October, he confronted them with evidence their country had a secret nuclear weapons development program in violation of several accords.
Since then, relations between North Korea and the United States, and indeed much of the world, have grown hostile. North Korea abandoned the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, expelled international inspectors and re-opened idled facilities that can produce nuclear weapons. The United States and its allies cut off fuel aid to the North.
On Wednesday, Mr. Kelly meets diplomats from North Korea and China in Beijing - the first formal contact between Washington and Pyongyang since October. And, some analysts say, it is the first chance to begin edging away from a dangerous confrontation.
Richard Baker, a regional security analyst at the East-West Center, a policy research center in Hawaii, said it is not clear whether North Korea is serious about negotiating an end to the crisis. "They will not be soft. It will not be a kissy-face meeting, no way. But it will be very clear right from the beginning, whether their purpose is to have a meeting or to stage a blow-up," Mr. Baker said.
Kim Tae-woo, a nuclear weapons expert for the South Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, expects little new from the Beijing gathering. "At the initial stage of three-way talks, I think each side will repeat what it has argued so far, so they will find a big, wide gap between their opinions," he said.
Pyongyang has long demanded full diplomatic recognition from the United States and an end to the U.S. military presence in South Korea. Plus, it desperately needs trade and economic development aid.
But U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher made clear Monday that North Korea will not get any benefits until it ends it nuclear weapons drive. "The situation created by these nuclear weapons programs has meant that North Korea has lost out on many of the benefits it could have expected from the world. The issue number one, the issue that we will be addressing, is how North Korea can correct that situation, how North Korea can verifiably and irreversibly end its nuclear weapons programs," Mr. Boucher said.
Experts say Pyongyang is not expected to give in to those demands. That is, in part, because North Korea appears to think nuclear weapons may be its only way to deter possible U.S. aggression against the communist state.
President Bush has included North Korea, along with Iraq and Iran, in what he called an axis of evil nations fostering terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.
And now it appears North Korea's nuclear ambitions are less likely to deter an attack as prompt one, even though the United States has made clear it wants a diplomatic solution to the dispute.
With the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein toppled, North Korea may fear Washington will set its sights on it. Some analysts think that fear is what spurred Pyongyang to change its mind and agree to talks this week in Beijing.
No matter what precipitated them, analysts say the fact talks are happening ratchets down the tensions.
As long as Washington and Pyongyang are talking, Mr. Baker said, the dispute is not likely to get worse. For that reason, he thinks more talks are crucial, no matter what else happens in Beijing.
"The test of the success of the meeting is basically whether it can result in agreement to have more meetings. The best outcome of this meeting will be an agreement to continue to meet," Mr. Baker said.
In South Korea, the best outcome this week will be a firm agreement to include Seoul in all future talks.
Hong Kwan-hee, a senior research fellow at the Korea Institution for National Unification in Seoul said South Korea's government is having a hard time explaining to voters why Seoul is not at the table.
It is especially difficult, he said, because for three years, democratic South Korea has cultivated relations with its hard-line communist neighbor and former foe. Seoul has given hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the impoverished North, and now, Mr. Hong said, many South Koreans feel betrayed by Pyongyang's demand they be kept from the table. "As South Korean government has stated many times, the South Korea is the party concern in the Korean Peninsula issue, and so South Korea should be a major player," Mr. Hong said.
South Korea is concerned that its concerns will not be heard if it does not take part in talks. Mr. Hong also said a South Korean presence would make it clear that Seoul and Washington are close allies, and Seoul will not give into North Korean bluster.
For months, Pyongyang insisted on discussing the nuclear issue only with Washington, and only after the United States had signed a non-aggression treaty with it. Washington, however, has insisted on involving its allies, and North Korea's neighbors, South Korea and Japan, as well as China and Russia. Involving China is a midpoint for the two governments.
If the Beijing talks end with a pledge for more meetings, analysts say that is when the hard diplomatic work will begin.
First, diplomats must find a way to bring South Korea, Japan and Russia to the table. Then they must find a way to bring North Korea back into compliance with global efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. And they may try to persuade the United States and its allies to give North Korea some of what it wants, including aid and greater recognition.