The United States has resumed its quest to convince North Korea to abandon its quest to develop nuclear weapons.
A promising start, in talks in early July, was suspended when North Korea's ``great leader'' Kim Il Sung passed away suddenly. A new round of talks, which began Friday in Geneva and which will continue through this week, has been launched amid cautious optimism that the country's new leadership remains receptive to an agreement.
``Our hope,'' says Robert Gallucci, the chief US negotiator, ``is that we will essentially continue and pick up where we left off.''
The US objective in Geneva is to get an unambiguous commitment from North Korea to honor the terms of the 1968 international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, including International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards.
The US is also pressing for implementation of a 1991 agreement between North and South Korea that calls for a verifiable ban on facilities that reprocess spent nuclear fuel.
At issue in the talks is the potential threat to the security of the Western Pacific posed by North Korea's alleged nuclear weapons program.
But much more is on the line.
Progress in the nuclear talks is inextricably linked to an eventual reconciliation between North and South Korea.
A potentially significant step in this direction was taken when the leaders of the two countries agreed to hold the first-ever North-South summit in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, in July. But Kim died before the summit was held.
Since then, during a transitional period for North Korea, relations apparently have deteriorated.
Before Kim's death, US officials were hoping that progress at the political level between the two Koreas would energize and forward the US-North Korea nuclear talks. Under the new situation, however, they hold to the hope that forward movement on the nuclear issue may also prod movement on the political front.
The collapse of efforts to contain North Korea's nuclear ambitions could also cast a pall over next year's nuclear nonproliferation review conference, which will decide whether to extend, alter, or abandon the 1968 treaty.
North Korea insists that its nuclear program, located in Yongbyon, 60 miles north of Pyongyang, is devoted only to the generation of electricity and not to the production of plutonium, a key raw material of atomic bombs. Most outside observers are unconvinced.
The question of North Korea's intentions was infused with new urgency two months ago when 8,000 spent fuel rods were removed from an experimental reactor at Yongbyon and placed in a cooling pond.
The talks that began Friday in Geneva produced no breakthrough as the US continued to press North Korea to dispose of the rods and not to reload the reactor. The US has vowed to break off the talks if North Korea begins reprocessing the rods, which contain enough plutonium to build four or five bombs.
The US is also seeking to convince North Korea to make permanent a temporary freeze Mr. Kim placed on its nuclear program as a concession to get the Geneva talks started.
As an inducement, the US is dangling before North Korea the prospect of eventual normal relations with the West and a peace treaty with South Korea, both of which would open the door to badly needed financial aid and investment.
To the consternation of some critics, the Clinton administration has also endorsed the idea of helping provide North Korea with technology and financing to convert its outmoded nuclear graphite technology to light-water technology, which is more resistant to proliferation. In return, North Korea would have to halt construction of its current experimental reactor, which could turn out the material for several bombs per year once completed.
Critics charge that transferring state-of-the-art technology will make North Korea more dangerous in the long run, while undermining the US's own efforts to dissuade China and Russia from providing light-water technology to Iran.
Clinton officials say if the talks collapse they will resume a push for economic sanctions against North Korea in the United Nations Security Council.