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North Korea Repeats Disarmament Conditions

A banner in Pyongyang celebrates North Korea's nuclear program (epa) December 18, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Six-country talks re-opened in Beijing today, aimed at persuading North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program. The discussions have resumed after more than a year's break.

It is the first time negotiators have sat down at the same table since North Korea reported its first nuclear-weapons test two months ago.

Today's closed-door talks in Beijing reportedly got off to a rocky start, after North Korea read out an extensive list of demands in return for abandoning its nuclear weapons.

No Walking Away

According to diplomats, the chief U.S. envoy, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, then warned that Washington's patience had "reached its limits."

But Hill also said Washington did not have the option of "walking away" from the issue.

Expectations for this round of negotiations -- involving the United States, China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and North Korea -- have been set low.

The goal is to get North Korea to implement a joint statement it signed in September 2005, when it agreed "in principle" to give up its nuclear weapons in return for aid and security guarantees.

But South Korea calls the discussions "exploratory" and no one expects an immediate deal.

Japanese Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma, speaking today in Tokyo, compared North Korea to wartime Japan -- criticism that is likely to be very poorly received, to put it mildly, in Pyongyang.

"From the viewpoint of other countries, [North Korea] is like [pre-World War II] Japan," Kyuma said. "It is seen as a threat, and we don't know what it is going to do next."

Aidan Foster-Carter, a leading Korea analyst at Britain's Leeds University, says at this point, all sides seem to agree that talking is better than doing nothing. Attempts to isolate North Korea don't seem to be working.

Bush Looks To His Legacy

As for North Korea's motivation -- Pyongyang is likely being pressured by its biggest trading partner and neighbor, China. And although Pyongyang might have received a psychological boost from its reported nuclear test -- its economy is doing as poorly as ever and the North Korean regime remains dependent on outside energy and aid deliveries to survive.

Foster-Carter says that, ironically, with Iraq in such a mess, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush might be looking to a possible deal in North Korea to give it a much-needed boost.

"I suppose it's only the fact that the Bush administration is so enfeebled and bogged down in the Middle East that perhaps [U.S. President George W. Bush] is starting to think of his legacy," Foster-Carter says. "Whatever you may say about [North Korean leader] Kim Jong Il, at least he's not Al-Qaeda and we presume he's not mad enough to sell anything to them, even through intermediaries. So maybe with North Korea, a deal might be doable, whereas in the Middle East it looks as hard as ever."

It won't be easy though, as Foster-Carter points out.

"[The Bush administration] came to power and cut their teeth chiding and deriding the previous Clinton administration precisely for having done a deal with North Korea, which did give the North Koreans something," Foster-Carter says. "They were going to build them nuclear reactors, remember? Republicans always said that was a terrible deal: 'We don't talk to evil.' So there's a double difficulty [for them] as I see it now -- most immediately to actually get a deal with North Korea that will work simply on the issues and then to sell it at home."

China Has The Leverage

As many analysts have pointed out, one big difficulty is that Washington doesn't have much leverage with North Korea at this point-- which makes China's influence by far the most important.

But China appears not to want to push Pyongyang too hard, for fear of destabilizing the regime, which could cause a flood of North Koreans to cross the border.

The United States, however, does have one major "carrot" it could offer to woo Pyongyang. A year ago, Washington got its foreign partners to impose new financial curbs on North Korean assets abroad -- leading to the freezing of millions of dollars.

Measures to block North Korean money in the Chinese territory of Macau appear to have been especially effective, leading to loud complaints by Pyongyang.

A U.S. Treasury Department delegation is expected to meet North Korean representatives to discuss the standoff.