The talks will be dominated by the fate of 8,000 uranium fuel rods, which are sitting in cooling ponds, after being withdrawn two months ago from the nuclear reactor in Yongybon, 60 miles north of the North Korean capital, Pyongyang. The spent fuel rods could be reprocessed to yield sufficient plutonium for five or six nuclear bombs, according to US estimates.
North Korea has said that it will neither reprocess the used rods, nor will it put new rods into the reactor, while talks with the US are going on. The unspoken corollary is that if Washington does not offer sufficient economic and diplomatic enticements during the talks, Pyongyang can always revert to its nuclear programme.
The US negotiator, Robert Gallucci, is upbeat in public about the chances of a breakthrough in the talks, apparently hoping that the departure of the old Socialist ideologue, Kim Il Sung, will make the North Koreans more amenable to suggestions of economic development, in exchange for abandoning their nuclear ambitions. In recent days, he has even criticised the South Korean government for provoking North Korea, by staging a press conference with a North Korean defector who claimed Pyongyang already had five nuclear bombs. 'It does not seem to me that it added clarity and warmth to the dialogue,' Mr Gallucci said .
But, despite Pyongyang's avowed commitment to the success of the talks, the Communist state has yet to prove by its actions that it is committed to giving up its single remaining bargaining tool in its test of wills with the US and South Korea. In the last two years Pyongyang has gained most when it was most intransigent, since Washington and Seoul have understandably wanted to avoid a breakdown of talks that could ultimately lead to war.
Although two inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are still in North Korea and are apparently confident that the 8,000 rods have not been removed from the cooling ponds, they have not been able to determine what state the rods are in. North Korea has said something must be done with the rods by the end of August, before they start corroding and become dangerous to handle. The US would like the rods to be shipped out of North Korea entirely and put into long- term storage elsewhere.
The US would then help North Korea to build a light- water reactor, which is safer than North Korea's graphite reactor. But Mr Gallucci, who has finished a tour of Japan, South Korea, China and Russia to discuss the North Korean nuclear issue, has been unable to persuade anyone to accept the rods.