BEIJING: US Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly began talks with North Korea yesterday aimed at resolving a standoff over Pyongyang's suspected nuclear weapons programme, but few expect a breakthrough.
With North Korean negotiator Li Gun considered too junior to cut a deal, diplomats said the first formal face-off between Washington and Pyongyang since the crisis began last October was likely to yield only plans for more talks.
Kelly and Li huddled behind closed doors at the Diaoyutai State Guest House, the walled garden compound where China, trying to play an honest broker role in the talks, receives visiting dignitaries. There was no comment from officials involved.
North Korea wants a security guarantee from the United States, as well as aid and diplomatic recognition, and says it needs a powerful deterrent to stave off the threat of attack.
Washington says Pyongyang, which President George W. Bush has bracketed as part of an axis of evil along with Iran and pre-war Iraq, must scrap the nuclear programme before it will offer a guarantee.
This wide gulf is unlikely to be bridged this week and the Beijing meetings marked the start of what is likely to be a lengthy process to defuse the crisis.
Both sides staked out tough positions ahead of the talks, with Secretary of State Colin Powell saying the United States would not be intimidated by a nuclear armed North Korea and could do whatever might be required in face of such a threat.
North Korea's air force began long-distance flight training in moves apparently aimed to counter US fighter jet tactics used in the war in Iraq, South Korea's Defence Ministry said.
Failure to resolve the dispute could present Washington with the unpalatable choice of accepting a nuclear-armed North Korea which could trigger a nuclear arms race in Northeast Asia or resorting to a strike against its facilities, analysts said.
The commander of US military forces in Japan said yesterday any North Korean nuclear weapon represents a grave security threat and the talks in Beijing could be a major step toward easing tension on the Korean peninsula.
China, widely seen as a little more than a facilitator, held a working breakfast with the US delegation ahead of the talks.
The Korean peninsula remains the Cold War's last flashpoint and reclusive North Korea, which talks regularly about war being imminent, fears it could be the next target after the quick US military campaign in Iraq.
Bush told magazine reporters on Tuesday he has no current plans for another war.
Washington wants the North Koreans to close down their nuclear programme to end a crisis festering since October.
The presence in Beijing of Jo Myong-rok, the military number two to North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, indicated Pyongyang was keen to secure a US pledge not to attack, as well as finding out where China stood, Chinese analysts said.
A breakthrough offer from North Korea seemed unlikely. Li would be limited to discussing procedural matters, a Western diplomat said.
Any real decisions would lie with Kim Jong-il. Reuters
Did you find this article insightful?