The 5-Minute Briefing: Talks with North Korea

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The six-nation session in Beijing is the fifth of its kind, but the first to be held in more than a year. At stake is the outline of a deal whereby North Korea would give up its nuclear programme (or programmes) in return for economic aid and security guarantees from the West. But if these talks - involving Japan, China, the US and Russia as well as the two Koreas - end in failure as did the June 2004 meeting, then Pyongyang may step up its military nuclear programme, and become an even greater proliferation threat. Western intelligence services believe the North has enough plutonium for half a dozen nuclear devices.

What is the main stumbling block?

The North has all along demanded a formal treaty of non-aggression, and the restoration of diplomatic relations, with the US before it dismantles its nuclear programme. But Washington has always insisted Pyongyang must first abandon these activities, before any such agreement and the launch of a major economic aid package. Reversing the policy of the Clinton administration, the Bush White House also refuses to enter detailed direct negotiations with the North, saying any solution must be multilateral.

So what are the prospects this time?

Marginally better than in the past, though where Pyongyang is concerned, nothing is ever predictable. Late last week, it muddied the waters further by saying that all would be resolved by signature of a formal treaty ending the 1950-1953 Korean war. But the chief US and North Korean negotiators held an unusual 75-minute bilateral meeting yesterday. They apparently did not get into substantive issues, but the very fact the two sides met suggests that both want progress. Previous six-nation meetings have been limited to three days. By contrast, this one is open-ended. "We all agree that we're going to stay here as long as it takes to get something done," a senior US official said.