Five of the world's most powerful nations, three of them United Nations Security Council members, meet here Wednesday - driven to the table, amid deepening pessimism, by a tiny country that can't feed or fuel itself, but whose often brilliant machinations could stir a dark whirlwind in Asia.
To say that North Korea is exceptional - like no other nation on earth - may be an understatement. It does not think, act, plan, or dream according to any ordinary frame of reference, experts say. It was born as an anti-Japanese guerrilla movement, and in many ways has evolved the clinical characteristics of a mass cult. It is set up to function - through strict military logic and a powerful homegrown ideology - as a single unified organism whose purpose is to ensure the survival of the Kim family dynasty as the future rulers of all Korea.
Rumors of grumbling do emerge from the "black box," as the fortress-regime of Kim Jong Il is sometimes called. Yet after starvation took millions of lives in the late 1990s - a calamity that might shatter most regimes - Mr. Kim retains at least the nominal loyalty of his people. The regime is grudgingly admired even by critics for its diplomatic cunning and for its capacity to endure hardship.
"[North Korea] can live for five, 10, 20 years in a state of half-collapse,'' says a senior US official. "What's stopping them?"
So as diplomats gather around a six-sided table at Beijing's Diaoyutai State Guest House, hope is tempered with realism about how quickly the North will bargain away its only real card, the nuclear option.
For the Chinese hosts, the definition of success in the three-day talks is being officially downgraded to hopes for subsequent meetings, and future talks between the parties - North Korea, the US, South Korea, Russia, Japan, and China. [See related story at right.]
Washington has achieved the format it has long wanted - multilateral talks aimed at collective pressure on the North. But most analysts feel it is too early in the process to expect the North to back off its weapons accession, let alone allow the levels of verification of weapons needed by any credible international inspection team.
Back in February, as it became clear that Kim was creating an entirely new dynamic in East Asia by scrapping its earlier agreements with the US and withdrawing from the Nonproliferation Treaty. A senior US official compared the Asian nuclear crisis to the Iraq weapons crisis. It was still "very early" in the game in North Korea.
After Saddam Hussein statues began to topple in Baghdad, the Chinese decided it was time to take a decisive hand in bringing Kim to the table - leading to three-party talks in Beijing last April. Those talks ended in frustration, and a claim by the North that it was busy reprocessing its formerly sealed plutonium fuel rods, to obtain weapons grade material. The US has long suspected the North already has two crude nuclear devices, albeit untested.
For the North, it may still be quite early to arrive at a deal.
The six-way talks allow the North to probe the resolve and "bottom line" of the nations gathered at the table. The talks also give the North a chance to score large propaganda points at home by showing TV coverage of how the world's great powers have been forced come to Beijing to deal with their "Dear Leader," as Kim is called.
Whether or not the White House feels it is possible to achieve anything - and deep divisions remain in the administration over the advisability of talks - there is consensus that the format will allow for a graphic case to be made in front of five other parties about the ill effects of a regime whose weapons could trigger an arms race in Asia. The US had wanted to make this kind of presentation at the UN Security Council.
In Washington, even moderates who generally support talks feel the North's leadership may now have decided to develop a full-blown nuclear capability.
"I'm pretty pessimistic because when you look at the North Korean logic, it seems like they will want to develop an overt nuclear weapon," says a senior defense analyst in Washington. "They may just be bargaining for time, appearing to be cooperative by coming to the meeting."
All five states reportedly will try to convince Kim, using different tools and tactics, that the development of nuclear weapons will make both his regime and surrounding countries less secure.
The US will reportedly arrive with a very strong line against giving any security guarantees or major funding to a regime it claims is engaging in "nuclear blackmail."
How strongly the other four negotiating partners will back this tough line is unclear.
Bush administration officials have long felt the North could be a huge investment and manufacturing zone - an industrial park to be developed by South Korean and Japanese know-how.
South Korea and Japan are expected to offer proposals along those lines Wednesday. At present, North Korea's economy does not outmatch that of states like Vermont.
Yet such openness would require an extraordinary change of mind on Kim's part - or his departure. Kim's problem is that opening his regime exposes the North Korean people to influences far different than the juche ideology that now depicts him as a near deity.
As host for the talks, China is sending the most senior official to the meeting, Vice Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly will head the US delegation. Mr. Kelly's experience in dealing with the North dates to the 1994 "Agreed Framework," negotiated between Kim Jong Il's father - the founder of North Korea, Kim Il Sung - and the Clinton administration.
The heads of the other delegations are Vice Foreign Minister Kim Yong Il of North Korea, Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov of Russia, Deputy Foreign Minister Lee Soo-hyuck of South Korea, and Director-General Mitoji Yabunaka of the Asian and Oceanic Affairs Bureau of the Japanese Foreign Ministry. Because of worry that North Korea may insist that the meeting not be held principally in English, each delegation will bring up to five interpreters for simultaneous translations.
Six countries will meet Wednesday in Beijing for three days to discuss North Korea's weapons programs. Here is a look at what each party hopes to bring away from the talks.
• Wants verifiable end to North Korea's programs for weapons of mass destruction.
• Wants Asian nations to pressure Kim Jong Il to abandon his nuclear ambition.
• Desires improved blockades on the North's illicit cash flows and military technology.
• Hawks want regime change.
• Wants regime survival.
• Will discuss dismantling nuclear program in exchange for US security guarantees and possible US withdrawal from the Korean peninsula.
• Wants access to credit and loans.
• May want nuclear option anyway.
• Wants eventual reunification with North and an end to 50-year-old armistice.
• Seeks delicate balance of closer ties with Pyongyang while maintaining US security alliance.
• Wants central role as "honest broker" in the crisis.
• Wants North as buffer from US military, but worried about a nuclear North and US hawks.
• Might want the six-party talks to evolve into continuing regional Asian security group.
• Has old ties to Pyongyang; along with South, China has the most to lose if North collapses.
• Desires end to North's missile program; biological and nuclear weapons can reach Japan.
• Wants normalization with North; will pay North up to $1 billion in wartime compensation.
• Wants clarification on kidnapped Japanese and return of abducted children now in North.
• UN Security Council member, former ally of North, and sometime confidant of Kim Jong Il.
• Presence at talks affirms role as "great power" player.
• Could be an X factor, bringing surprise constructive initiative to the table.