As in the previous two rounds of talks, the ultimate aim is to put an end to Pyongyang's nuclear programs. But despite lower-level meetings, some recent positive words from North Korea and assurances by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell that Washington favors a "flexible" approach, experts do not expect a major breakthrough during this negotiating session.
The basic problems that have faced negotiators since the first round of talks almost a year ago remain. North Korea continues to demand security and aid guarantees from the United States in exchange for freezing its atomic program, while Washington says it wants a full and verifiable dismantlement by Pyongyang before it agrees to concessions.
In addition, North Korea continues to insist that it has plutonium-processing capabilities but no uranium-enrichment program. The United States says Pyongyang has previously admitted to having both.
Patrick Koellner, an expert on North Korea at the University of Hamburg's Institute for Asian Affairs, told RFE/RL that the timing of these talks, coming less than five months before the U.S. presidential election, means little progress can be expected. "Both of the really important players in this process -- North Korea and the U.S. -- are playing for time," he said. "North Korea is waiting for the presidential election in the United States to see whether there is a change in government, and the U.S. still hoping that as time goes by, pressure on North Korea to comply with its demands will increase. Both positions, of course, are quite problematic."
South Korea has been touting a three-point plan, in hopes of bridging the gulf dividing the U.S. and North Korean positions. The first stage would see Pyongyang pledging to freeze its nuclear efforts in return for a promise from Washington and its allies of aid and security guarantees. In a slight shift in position, the United States now says it would not oppose aid to North Korea by other countries under those terms, although assistance from Washington itself would be unlikely.
In time, as aid flowed into the country, North Korea would start to dismantle its nuclear infrastructure and accept inspections by the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency. The third stage would bring the complete elimination of North Korea's nuclear program and the normalization of diplomatic ties between Washington and Pyongyang.
The head of the South Korean delegation at the talks, Lee Soo-hyuck, said today he could not see a better way out of the impasse. "There aren't many more new and special ways to resolve this issue. We will once again explain the three points [aimed at solving the nuclear impasse] which we have discussed before. We will ask for more understanding and support from other countries," Lee said.
Japan's chief cabinet secretary, Hiroyuki Hosoda, said today he was not sure whether North Korea would be amenable to compromise. But one expert following the talks, professor Jin Canrong of Beijing's Renmin University, told Reuters that host country China would be stepping up the pressure for some sort of progress.
"I think China will persuade both sides [North Korea and the United States] to show more flexibility. Because China faces pressure. They cannot afford to have useless talks going on forever. We have to get some progress each time or we will face the possibility of losing the momentum. That would be a big problem," Jin said.