North Korean leaders have long emphasized "regime survival" as their central goal, keeping intact the central authoritarian structure set up by Kim Il Sung in the 1940s that is now rigidly enforced by his son, Kim Jong Il, in running North Asia's most unusual and isolated state.
This week, in six-party talks now under way in Beijing, North Korea is playing a superb cat and mouse game with the rest of Asia and the US - apparently temporizing over whether a bold step to dismantle its weapons will help or harm the delicate balance of isolation and control the Kim regime needs to survive.
The twists and turns take place by the hour. Even the Chinese, who have conducted more than 60 meetings among the five parties since the first somewhat surly round of talks last August, seemed caught unawares by their Marxist neighbor. Thursday it appeared, via a Chinese spokesman, that a major development in the Asian region - a "comprehensive" dismantling of the North's nuclear programs - had been achieved. The process, which is still in play in the talks, could still be hammered out Friday and possibly on Saturday.
Yet hours later the North and the US were trading barbs over why more was not accomplished in the meetings, with the US stating the North's proposals were nothing new, and the North stating a US "hard-line" position was ruining the talks.
The US delegation, which arrived with far more members than in August, has hewed mainly to one specific demand: The US team, led by Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, wants a clear statement by the North Koreans that they had been developing a secret highly enriched uranium program (HEU).
Mr. Kelly's own confrontation of Pyongyang with evidence of the HEU program was the trigger in October of 2002 for the current crisis.
Sources say that Libya's recent revelations about nuclear technology ties to the North, as well as evidence emerging from Pakistani proliferator Abdul Qadeer Khan, has made the point a crucial one for the Americans, testing whether Pyongyang wants to offer an olive branch of trust that can be built on. "US diplomats at this point feel it is disingenuous for them to allow the North to sit at the table and lie," says a well-placed source. "The intelligence on this has built strongly since Libya."
Partly, expectations of progress have been raised by a more serious and flexible attitude that seems evident by officials on all sides. In the past week, Chinese diplomats and experts have been openly stating their insistence that this round of talks is crucial for keeping the six-nation process alive. As the March 26 start date for talks approached, some US officials were saying there would "either be progress, or the appearance of progress" by the weekend.
Much of the focus in the first two days' sessions, which ran four hours each, had been on a South Korean proposal to essentially exchange oil and energy for a North Korean freeze on nuclear activity - and for a phased elimination by Pyongyang of its weapons of mass destruction programs. The Chinese came out early in support of Seoul's "freeze for energy" idea, and Thursday the Russians signed on as well, creating some momentum for an "institutional" process on the Korean peninsula, with China playing a central role in its administration.
The US team reportedly desires a timetable and only a very brief period for the North to begin taking actions on the ground, following a freeze. The Americans are also reportedly skeptical of a permanent process that could be used as a way to stall or dissimulate.
The ultimate US position, shared by host China and strongly by Japan, is for a "complete, verifiable, and irreversible" dismantling of the North's nuclear program. In a development Thursday, the Russians stated that the North may desire to abolish its weapons program but keep its civilian program.
At the moment the sticking points are reflected in negotiations over "sequencing" and "modalities." In one such scenario presented this week North Korea agrees in principle to dismantle, and the US agrees in principle to offer security guarantees. Then the North would freeze its program, and the US would approve food and oil to the needy North. The next phase would be verification. This is one of the most sensitive points, since North Korea has rarely allowed an intrusive presence of foreign officials inside its borders.
At a minimum the North's five neighbors appear to desire a second round.
"There is a recognition that this won't be solved in one shot," says Scott Snyder of the Asia Foundation in Seoul. Genuine progress, he says, would involve a written "sufficient statement of will on the part of all sides that will assure a mutually agreed upon direction, a concrete action plan that will bring a verifiable end."