WASHINGTON — International negotiations on North Korea's nuclear program resume in Beijing Thursday with more optimism than at any time in more than 18 months – largely because the two principal parties in the talks, North Korea and the United States, both have reason for craving the appearance of progress.
The spoiler may be that Pyongyang, which toughened its bargaining position by testing a nuclear weapon last October, may demand too high a price for putting its nuclear ambitions on the table.
Still, extraordinary bilateral talks between American and North Korean officials in Berlin last month have raised hopes. While no one expects full implementation of the North's 2005 agreement in principle to dismantle its nuclear program in exchange for economic and diplomatic incentives, the top US negotiator says progress in that direction is possible.
"We're not going to finish [the 2005 agreement] this week. We'll just maybe take a good first step," said Christopher Hill, assistant secretary of State, in Beijing Wednesday. The six-party talks, which have proceeded in fits and starts over the past three years, draw together the US, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, Russia, and host China.
One plausible outcome of this week's talks might be suspension of US financial sanctions on the North and an agreement on fuel deliveries in exchange for a freeze on the North's plutonium production and the return of inspectors to nuclear facilities.
That would leave for later talks the dismantling of the North's military nuclear program, debate over controversial points such as the furnishing of light-water reactors for civilian power production, and the North's desire for normalized relations with the US.
But will Pyongyang seek more than Washington is willing to give? The word from officials and experts who have spoken with North Korean officials in the run-up to the talks is that Pyongyang will demand an unfreezing of at least part of $24 million in North Korean financial assets in a Macao bank, huge fuel oil deliveries, and a move toward normalized relations with the US in exchange for shutting down its plutonium- producing facility.
That position would seem to be more than what President Bush could accept, given his opposition to an even less generous agreement reached with North Korea under the Clinton administration in 1994. That so-called "agreed framework" gave North Korea economic incentives for agreeing to end its nuclear program. But Pyongyang ended up using it as a cover for a secret nuclear arms program, a fact Mr. Bush cited in adopting a "disarmament first, then talk" approach to the North.
But the Bush administration may be interested in using the North Korea talks to offer a bit of good news on the foreign-policy and proliferation fronts, even as it struggles in the Middle East, some experts say.
"Both sides have a reason to want to talk, but not necessarily to make significant progress," says Jim Walsh, a research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Strategic Studies Program. "The [North] Koreans are feeling a lot of heat from China over their nuclear test, and the US has its hands full in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran."
With division in the Bush administration over how much ground to cede to Pyongyang still a factor, some analysts see the potential for incremental progress and a ratcheting down of a confrontational tone toward the North. Under that scenario, the prickliest issues that still divide the administration – such as the provision of light-water reactors for power production – would be left to the next administration.
"Those kinds of small steps may be about all we can expect out of the Bush administration," says David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington. "They may just be looking to settle the situation down so they can focus their last two years on Iraq, Iran, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."
Mr. Albright, who met recently with North Korea's chief nuclear negotiator, says the North's ultimate goal is a move toward "meaningful relations" with the US. The North also understands it will have to take clear steps before that could happen, he says, but they also remain skeptical of US intent.
"They want a process," he says, but they are also reluctant to proceed to a freeze on plutonium production that they fear might open them up to bolder US moves against them. "They make it clear they would respond to any aggressive moves," Albright says.
One stumbling block is a lack of clarity from the Bush administration on North Korea, he adds. Does the US accept the regime of Kim Jong Il or not? Might it still try to use military force to end its military nuclear capabilities or not? Is the furnishing of civilian nuclear facilities on the table for the US or not?
"The US is suffering from a lack of clarity on this issue," Albright says, "and it's not at all clear it can be resolved in the next two years."
Mr. Walsh of MIT says just the fact these talks are taking place suggests the North – and the US – believe something can be accomplished. He notes, for example, that US Treasury officials met last month with North Korean counterparts to discuss the US freeze on financial assets. The US accuses the North of running US dollar counterfeit operations.
And he says two question marks still hang over the talks: Will the North's new status after its nuclear test make an accord more difficult, and will Bush administration hard-liners – seemingly quiet on North Korea over recent months as they have focused on Iran – step in at some point to squelch an accord?
"The camp that favored regime change and emphasized never rewarding bad behavior has been silent on North Korea as they've turned their attention to Iran," Walsh says. "What happens in these [Beijing] talks may depend on whether the squeezers or the talkers have won the day with the president."