This week's talks in Beijing among the United States, North Korea and China were aimed at defusing the dispute over North Korea's nuclear program and preventing the crisis from escalating. Talks ended Thursday with State Department officials saying it was uncertain whether discussions would continue. And, analysts expect this to be just the beginning of a long and difficult process.
For negotiations to be successful, someone has to make concessions. North Korea and the United States each made a concession just to go to the talks in Beijing.
North Korea wanted direct negotiations with the United States but agreed to let China join. And Washington wanted multilateral talks, including South Korea and Japan, but agreed to keep them out of the meeting in Beijing.
Can Pyongyang and Washington make further concessions to keep the nuclear issue on the negotiating table and off the battlefield?
"I think that this is not going to be easy. I think it's going to be highly frustrating. All our negotiating experience with North Korea suggests this," said Bill Drennan, Korea specialist at the United States Institute of Peace. "I don't think they're initially going to be willing to give up anything without some kind of solid meaningful reciprocal step on the part of the United States. And this is where the negotiators are going to really earn their pay, because we have said consistently that they must first give up their nuclear weapons ambitions, visibly, verifiably and permanently - before we would engage with them on all of the good things that would follow after they do this."
But Asia specialist Gordon Flake says North Korea and the United States did not see the Beijing meeting as a "negotiating session." And he says neither side intends to make concessions.
"The U.S. administration has not gone to these talks with the intent of negotiating away North Korea's nuclear program," he said. "That has been done in numerous occasions in the past ... The talks are really our spelling out the terms of verification for their unilateral capitulation on the nuclear issue. In other words, presuming you [the North Koreans] do say, 'okay we give up all our nuclear weapons, we will go back into compliance with our previous agreements,' then what would it take in terms of verification, in terms of inspections, for the U.S. and the international community to believe you this time?"
Mr. Flake, the executive director of the Mansfield Foundation in Washington, says he does not believe North Korea is willing to give up its nuclear program. Bill Drennan agrees. He says North Korean official statements indicate it believes it has a right to develop nuclear weapons as a deterrent to U.S. hostility. Mr. Drennan says the North points to the war in Iraq as an example of what happens to countries without nuclear weapons.
"And at the end of the day, I'm pretty well convinced that what they really want is nuclear weapons, because I think they see that as the ultimate security guarantee," he said. "It's going to take a real concerted effort by us and our allies to convince the North Koreans not to go down this road."
The current crisis began after the United States confronted North Korea last October with evidence that it was continuing a secret program to develop nuclear weapons.
The United States stopped fuel shipments to North Korea, and South Korea and Japan stopped work on building nuclear power plants in the North. Pyongyang expelled international weapons inspectors and withdrew from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. The North has threatened to start reprocessing spent nuclear fuel to make weapons-grade plutonium.
The United States says North Korea has enough spent fuel to make five or six nuclear weapons within a few months. Mr. Drennan says the Bush administration has not publicly said what it would do if North Korea started up its reprocessing facility.
"The administration has studiously avoided publicizing what has become known as 'red lines' - you know, 'don't cross this line, or we'll do the following' - out of concern that as soon as they identify a red line, North Korea will rush past it just to see what their reaction is, whether we really meant it," he said. Mr. Drennan says although Washington has repeatedly said it wants to resolve the dispute peacefully, it has intentionally left open the military option. And he says some members of the administration are believed to be considering a possible strike against North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear facility, if the North crosses an unstated red line.
Gordon Flake says the United States can not tolerate a nuclear North Korea, especially after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
"North Korea of course is the perfect example of the oft-repeated axiom that 9-11 changes everything and that we are not prepared to live with the level of uncertainty that a North Korean nuclear weapons program carries with it, particularly with a program that could be producing fissile amounts of plutonium, which are untrackable once they're produced and could easily be sold to the highest bidder, including al-Qaida and the like," he said.
North Korea wants the United States to make assurances in writing that it will not attack the North. The United States has been reluctant to do that, but Mr. Drennan says this is an area where compromise may be possible. He says the United States might consider using language already included in international agreements, such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or the U.N. Charter, that might satisfy Pyongyang's demand for security assurances.
"And there's some beauty to it, because you're not creating a new situation," he said. "Basically, the North Koreans could tout it, "Yes, we got a security assurance from the United States." And we could honestly say they're not getting any more than they would have gotten anyway."
Mr. Drennan says he's not very optimistic about the success of future talks because of North Korea's history of violating every agreement it has ever signed and because of what he calls that country's paranoia.
Mr. Flake says the United States sees the talks not as a way to negotiate a solution but as a way to gain the support of China and Russia. Moscow and Beijing want Washington to use diplomatic means to handle the crisis, and Mr. Flake says the Bush administration wants Beijing and Moscow, two historic allies of Pyongyang, to put more pressure on North Korea to capitulate.
If the diplomatic process does not produce the desired changes in Pyongyang, Mr. Flake says the Bush administration may turn to a bolder approach.