With neither the US nor North Korea wishing to appear weak as they enter a new round of negotiations Tuesday on the North's nuclear program, both are depending on surrogates to provide the incentives to bring the stalled six-party talks back to life.
For the US, it is South Korea that offered the North the kind of concession - in this case energy assistance - that North Korea has sought from the US to put its nuclear ambitions on the table and return to talks it walked away from a year ago.
For Pyongyang, the cover for returning to Beijing for talks apparently comes from the late North Korean ruler Kim Il Sung. North Korean officials now say the leader, who ruled until his death in 1994, hoped some day to give up his nuclear programs.
Reflecting that wish, Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung's son and successor, reportedly explained the return to talks by divulging to US officials his fervent wish to see a nonnuclear Korean peninsula.
Mr. Kim Jong Il's words offer some hope that the talks will go further than earlier rounds - which went nowhere while North Korea was "improving its nuclear capability," as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently acknowledged to Japanese TV.
On Friday, North Korea also announced that it would be willing to give up its nuclear weapons program in exchange for a permanent peace accord with the US to replace the cease fire in place on the Korean peninsula since 1953. Although not new, that position appeared to be an attempt to match the perception of reasonableness the US has managed to achieve among its partners in the talks: China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea.
That perception will come in handy if this is the last chance the US gives to direct talks before seeking international diplomatic action against the North.
But that strategy requires a sincere effort at this week's talks. Experts say no real progress will be possible unless North Korea and the US quickly show signs of drawing closer on central demands.
"What these talks hinge upon is that both sides show a willingness to adjust their negotiating positions especially in the sequencing of the steps required for an agreement," says Darryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association in Washington. The US wants to start with the North's agreement to fully disarm before an assistance package is approved, "while the North wants the order to be the opposite."
Mr. Kimball adds that the talks will have to produce a timetable for follow-up meetings beyond the two days of Beijing talks in order to be considered any kind of success.
At the same time, talk in Washington of a "Plan B" - to follow another failed round with a get-tough policy of sanctions and economic pressure - could portend failure even before the talks start.
"From what I hear the feeling's growing that you can't go on forever with these talks," says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington. "So you have to make the diplomatic effort to give them a chance, but really you're out to prove to everybody that these guys are beyond the pale."
At that point, "You move to what is being called a Plan B, not a hot war but isolating them as best we can, calling them a violator at the UN and in the [International Atomic Energy Agency]," Mr. Sokolski says. Even if such talk is simply the Pentagon playing bad cop to the State Department's good cop, he's sensing that "the gig is up." - either these talks yield a breakthrough or "it's the prelude to a kind of cold war."
Since everyone seems to agree that military intervention to attempt to "take out" Pyonyang's nuclear facilities is not feasible, that leaves diplomatic action if the talks fail. And that can work, observers concur, only if the US is seen to have made a good-faith effort in the talks. "The question is whether the Bush administration has a reasonable and balanced Plan A," says Robert Einhorn of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
"Because if you don't, you can't get the support of the Chinese, South Koreans, and Russians for a Plan B."
Although some critics lambasted the Bush administration for doing little to date as the North developed its nuclear capabilities, others say the US has positioned itself well. "The US is seen as a reasonable player at the moment, and that is a pretty good position to be in," says Thomas Christensen, a foreign-affairs expert at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. If things don't go well, "failure would be firmly blamed on North Korea, which would have certain advantages for the United States moving forward."
Mr. Christensen adds that the US has managed to convince its partners that its patience is running out. And that, in turn, may have convinced China and South Korea to press harder both publicly and behind the scenes with promises of aid that are conditional on serious negotiations.
Chinese observers close to official thinking say the US is now seen as reasonably expecting progress at these talks - or else. "They don't want [the talks] wandering on forever - and have made it evident they want to make progress," says Chu Shulong, director if the Institute of Strategic Studies at Tsinghua University in Beijing.