The US wants North Korea to dismantle its nuclear programs. North Korea wants a guarantee from the US that it won't attack. China doesn't want a war on its border.
But as important three-way talks begin here Wednesday between those nations, the most optimistic outcome may be a simple agreement among the parties to talk again, analysts say.
Delegations from North Korea and the US arrived here Tuesday amid stoic doubts by all three sides that - barring a surprise from the Koreans - any common ground can be achieved between Washington and Pyongyang over a nuclear impasse that has caused a seven-month crisis in the north of Asia.
One measure of doubt is the absolute silence from American and Chinese officials going into the hermetically sealed all-day talks. There are no statements or briefings; one US embassy official laughed when asked if US envoy James Kelly would give a press conference.
But a more telling indicator of the galactic divide is how pessimistic China has become in recent days. Beijing helped broker what seemed a diplomatic breakthrough by getting the White House and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's diplomats to the table in record time. Only last week, Secretary of State Colin Powell announced an end to a stalemate on talks dating to last October's admission by North Korea that it had a secret uranium nuclear program.
But now the Chinese are in a deep downplay mode, worried, in part, about what to expect from Mr. Kim, sources say. Chinese and North Korean military officials met Monday ahead of talks.
"This event closed off because neither side has any confidence in the result of dialogue," says Yan Xuetong of the Institute of International Studies at Tsinghua University in Beijing. "China certainly doesn't. That's why China is keeping such a low profile. We are worried that the US and North Korea are just using this meeting to cover their own designs."
Some Chinese elites say Beijing's offering of a table could simply buy time for North Korea to push forward its nuclear ambition. At the same time, concerns are raised in this capital city that the US may use the talks to provide "diplomatic cover" for a plan to take military action against the North. "If the US wants a war, they need some diplomacy to give legitimacy to it," says Dr. Yan.
It has never been easy, analysts say, to imagine what the US and North Korea would talk about at the outset. The US position is well known. A post-Sept. 11, post-Iraq White House doesn't want the "rogue" regime of North Korea to manufacture nuclear weapons that can one day kill millions of Americans. They want a verifiable dismantling of plutonium and uranium capability by Kim. And North Korea has a track record, in the US view, of not keeping its agreements and promises.
It is understood, as well, that North Korea doesn't want to give up its chief means of defense and threat. The North has recently withdrawn from the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. Kim can argue that India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons outside the treaty. North Korean negotiators are expected to note, "Why pick on us, and not them?" says a Seoul-based US expert on North Korea.
To be sure, there are brighter scenarios. US State Department officials have long hinted at a "comprehensive solution" on North Korea. Japan and South Korea are principle advisers to this approach, and if the nuclear imbroglio can be solved those two countries would likely join the discussion quickly. The brighter scenario looks roughly like this: If the North agrees to satisfy the problem of nuclear weapons, this would amount to a historic change or opening in the region. A verifiable nuclear-free peninsula would spark a new deal, one leading to a peace treaty with the South, and a bountiful basket of material support for the North: energy, food, technical assistance, access to international loans. But if the underlying assumptions of South Korea's "engagement policy" are correct - that the North really does want to open up - proponents argue this would be the time.
There is also a tougher path - with no agreement on nuclear programs, leading to sanctions and a possible confrontation. This approach was partly outlined in a recently-leaked memo from the office of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld calling for "regime change" in the North that would involve US-China cooperation on nonmilitary strategic actions in order to bring about a collapse.
In a related development, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher Tuesday called "patently false" a story in an Australian newspaper last week that some 20 high-level North Korean military officials had defected to the US through the island-nation of Nauru.