The last round of talks six months ago ended in a stalemate. North Korea said at the time it would not dismantle what it termed its "nuclear deterrent" until the United States first lifted its sanctions and signed a nonaggression pact. The United States, for its part, called on Pyongyang to first disarm before receiving any security or economic guarantees.
Formally, the United States and North Korea have not altered their positions. But experts say there is more cause for optimism ahead of this second round of talks.
Last month, North Korea invited a delegation of five U.S. academics and congressional advisers to visit its nuclear complex at Yongbyon, which has been at the center of tensions. At that time, North Korean officials said they would be willing -- as a first step -- to freeze their nuclear program in exchange for economic aid from the United States.
Recent revelations by the father of Pakistan's nuclear program, Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, that he supplied North Korea -- along with Libya and Iran -- with nuclear technology has helped Washington garner support from the other parties to the talks to put additional pressure on Pyongyang to compromise.
In a sign that the pressure might be working, North Korean envoys were reported this month to have held informal talks in Vienna with officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency about a possible resumption of nuclear inspections.
Patrick Koellner, an expert on North Korea at the University of Hamburg's Institute for Asian Affairs, told RFE/RL that Libya's decision to abandon its nuclear program and return to the fold of international cooperation could influence North Korea. But Pyongyang will be watching to see how much Tripoli actually gains from its conversion, and he says a lot will depend on whether the United States would be willing to offer Pyongyang the same types of carrots it is now extending to Libya.
"Well, it's certainly true that the developments in Libya have been followed with close interest in North Korea. But North Korea is also certainly very much interested in whether Libya really gains substantial benefits from giving up its nuclear program. So I'm quite positive that North Korea, in order to take a similar route, would like to see some substantial progress, in terms of being eliminated from the U.S. State Department's list of countries sponsoring terrorism, in terms of gaining some substantial economic aid and so on," Koellner said.
Charles Pritchard, who served as U.S. President Bill Clinton's special envoy for negotiations with North Korea, told Reuters in an interview on 23 February that the United States should set out a detailed "road map" for negotiations with North Korea. He believes that's something Washington should have done 15 months ago, when Pyongyang first revealed it had restarted its nuclear program.
"What they should have done 15 months ago is lay out what an endgame would look like -- if it is the U.S. objective to have a somewhat normal relationship with a changed North Korea. They have got to spell out for the North Koreans what the relations will look like, whether there will be diplomatic relations, interstate commerce, any of those things they might expect. More than that, the U.S. has got to convince North Korea that we are not out to change the regime, if that in fact is the objective of the administration," Pritchard said.
South Korea has, in fact, come up with a "road map" of its own. In the first phase of the proposal, North Korea would declare its intention to abandon all nuclear-weapons programs, while the other participants in the talks would promise to provide a security guarantee. In the second phase, North Korea would freeze its nuclear programs, return to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and accept inspections by the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency. South Korea, Russia, and China would provide energy deliveries in return. In the third phase, North Korea would complete the elimination of its nuclear programs, and the United States would give a written security guarantee to the isolated country.
It sounds promising. But the basic problem in negotiating with North Korea remains the issue of trust. The latest crisis was precipitated by North Korea's unilateral rejection of a 1994 treaty with the United States and the restarting of its nuclear programs. That is why advisers to current U.S. President George W. Bush have been so reluctant to accept any new deal that does not oblige Pyongyang to verifiably scrap all its nukes before sanctions are lifted.
James Kelly, the head of the U.S. delegation, says he was told by North Korean officials in October 2002 that Pyongyang had a uranium-enrichment program along with its plutonium-extraction efforts. Now, North Korea will only admit to having extracted plutonium and claims it is not enriching uranium, even though Pakistan says it sold Pyongyang the technology.
U.S. Undersecretary of State James Bolton told journalists during a visit to Tokyo last week that this raises a fundamental question about whether negotiations with Pyongyang can lead anywhere.
And so, despite the guarded optimism, Koellner says there is reason to believe that tomorrow's talks could collapse around the issue of uranium enrichment, unless Pyongyang either comes clean about this suspected part of its nuclear program or allows inspectors to return to put those allegations to rest.
"The big question is whether a breakdown of this second round of the six-party talks can be avoided,” Koellner said. “The U.S. is quite adamant that in October 2002, North Korea -- when it was faced with proof about the existence of this program -- actually said, 'Yes, we have such a program.' Now they are saying, 'No, we don't.' And so the question is whether we can find some way to dismiss speculations about the program, whether there can be some sort of investigation to make sure whether there is such a program or not."
No firm deadline has been set for the end of the talks, which are expected to last several days.