Six-party negotiations on ways to eliminate North Korea's nuclear weapons program resume in Beijing Monday with the issue of better relations between the United States and North Korea presenting an important aspect of talks.

The United States and North Korea - - officially known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea - - have no diplomatic relations. In addition, Washington and Pyongyang have yet to sign a peace treaty officially ending the Korean War that lasted from June 1950 to July 1953. An armistice and a ceasefire have been in effect for more than 53 years.

But now, American and North Korean officials have begun talks aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations between the two countries. Those discussions are an important element of the February 13 agreement reached by the six-party talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

After two days of meetings in New York earlier this month [March 5 and 6], U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill said the talks were "marked by a sense of optimism on both sides." But he acknowledged serious negotiations still lie ahead.

David Kay, former chief nuclear weapons inspector with the International Atomic Energy Agency, says normalizing relations with the United States is extremely important for North Korea.

"From the point of view of the North Koreans, one has to be almost sympathetic toward the position they've gotten themselves in: they're squeezed between a China that has abandoned communism in its normal form and is moving ahead rapidly, at least in the economic forms of capitalism and some minor forms of democracy. And you've got South Korea, one of the most vibrant states in Northeast Asia," says Kay.

In contrast, Kay adds, "Here is North Korea still stuck politically somewhere in the 13th century and economically certainly not even in the 20th century yet. And they look around and see a world that might sweep them completely away. And they want an agreement -- some sort of political and economic agreement -- that would ensure their survival." 

Arnold Kanter, former U.S. Undersecretary of State from 1991 through 1993, agrees. "I think it's important to them symbolically. I think it's important to them because it will give them more access to international financial assistance and economic assistance. And it is probably important to them as a way of giving them some confidence that when we say that we have no intentions of attacking North Korea, invading North Korea, overthrowing the regime -- we actually mean it," stresses Kanter.

Playing Washington Against Beijing? 

However, Gary Samore, a former senior U.S. government official in the Clinton administration who helped negotiate the 1994 "Agreed Framework" with North Korea, does not believe normalizing relations with Washington is particularly important for the North Koreans. "Because I think they have very mixed feelings about having an American official presence in Pyongyang, which they suspect will serve as a basis for spying on their country. At the same time, the North Koreans clearly think that better political relations with the United States is desirable, if only to give them a way to play off the U. S. against the Chinese -- a country that they don't trust and don't like to be dependent on. So I think the North Koreans want better political relations with Washington," says Samore.

But, Samore adds, "At the same time, I'm not sure they see the normalization of relations -- to the extent that it means establishing missions in each other's capital -- I'm not sure they see that as a completely, unalloyed [i.e., pure or unqualified] good."

Samore says during the Clinton administration - - especially after then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright traveled to Pyongyang in October 2000 - - Washington and North Korea discussed establishing diplomatic relations. "We had very detailed negotiations with the North Koreans to try to establish diplomatic relations and we came very close to reaching an agreement. And the key issue that destroyed the agreement was whether or not we would be allowed to transit the DMZ - - the demilitarized zone - - with diplomatic pouches. We said that in order to support our embassy in Pyongyang, we needed to be able to move things overland, through the DMZ. And the North Korean security services said, 'No.' And so the agreement fell apart," recalls Samore. 

Giving Up the Bomb?

Experts say normalizing relations between Pyongyang and Washington is tied to the broader issue of ending North Korea's nuclear weapons program. An agreement reached on February 13 between North Korea and five other countries - - the United States, South Korea, Japan, China and Russia - - calls on Pyongyang to freeze plutonium production at its Yongbyon plant within 60 days of the accord.

It also calls for inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, to monitor and verify the freeze. In exchange, North Korea would get 50-thousand tons of heavy fuel oil.

The head of the IAEA, Mohamed El-Baradei, just ended a trip to Pyongyang and described the talks as "quite useful."

Analysts say the second phase of the February 13 agreement will show whether North Korea is indeed ready to eliminate its nuclear weapons program. That phase calls on Pyongyang to make a full disclosure of all its nuclear weapons activities.

Former IAEA chief nuclear weapons inspector David Kay says one key element is how to persuade Pyongyang to give up its estimated eight to 12 nuclear bombs. "No one has seen eight to 12 nuclear weapons or the material for eight to 12 nuclear weapons. So you will have to technically determine, first of all, did they have enough plutonium to produce how many they had produced. It could be greater than 12 or fewer than eight. And then [you need to] actually look at the weapons to be sure you have them." That, says Kay, is a daunting technical and political task facing the six-party talks in the months ahead.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.