Delegates of six nations have held their first day of working-level discussions on North Korea's nuclear-weapons programs in Beijing. The consultations are a prelude to Wednesday's opening of a third round of high-level negotiations on the contentious issue.

Monday's consultations began as reports in Japan said Tokyo is prepared to offer energy aid to North Korea in exchange for a freeze of its nuclear-weapons programs, an apparent effort by Japan to start the stalled process of convincing North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

Tokyo's move would mark a divergence from the U.S. position, which is to offer no incentives until North Korea dismantles its nuclear-weapons programs in a complete, verifiable, and irreversible manner.

Talks on the issue in August and February failed to yield concrete results, and analysts are not optimistic about the outcome of this week's negotiations.

Many observers believe Pyongyang may wait for the outcome of the U.S. presidential elections in November before committing itself to any course of action.

"If Bush is re-elected, then maybe North Korea will reconsider their position, but [for] now they still have hope," said Xue Mouhong, a former professor of politics at Beijing's Tsinghua University. The North Koreans have accused the Bush Administration of being inflexible, and Professor Xue says they are probably waiting to see whether they might soon be dealing with a new, more accommodating administration.

Pyongyang has been angling for more aid as it negotiates an end to the standoff.

South Korea's president has offered substantial economic aid if North Korea cooperates, while China and Russia have both offered energy aid.

Despite mild economic growth in their country this year, most North Koreans have been living in severe poverty since an economic collapse in the 1990s, which is blamed on natural disasters and mismanagement.

North Korean officials claim they need to develop a nuclear deterrent force to guard against a possible attack from the United States. Washington says it has no plans to attack the North.

The working level negotiations are aimed at laying a foundation for high-level talks, which include China, Japan, North Korea and South Korea, Russia, and the United States.