If North Korea fails to take up the incentives on offer, the US is expected to renew its campaign in the United Nations for international sanctions.
Since the last high-level talks in Geneva nearly a year ago, North Korea has obstructed nuclear inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and removed enough material from a reactor to make several nuclear bombs. Washington was pressing the UN Security Council for sanctions when the North Korean President, Kim Il Sung, agreed last month to freeze his nuclear programme, hold a first-ever summit with his South Korean counterpart, Kim Young Sam, and resume talks with the US.
Robert Gallucci, the senior State Department official dealing with North Korea, and Pyongyang's first deputy foreign minister, Kang Sok Ju, will meet alternately at their countries' missions in Geneva, starting today at the North Korean mission. A senior US official said here yesterday that he hoped this round of negotiations, the third between the two countries, could be 'successful - and quickly'. Most observers, however, share the view of John Holum, head of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, who predicted in Washington yesterday that the talks would be a 'long slog'. Anyone anticipating a prompt outcome would be disappointed.
Contacts between Washington and Pyongyang for most of the past 12 months have been so sparse that the US side has little idea what to expect today. President Kim Il Sung told the former US president, Jimmy Carter, whose visit to Pyongyang last month was the catalyst for the resumption of talks, that he was interested in changing over to more modern nuclear technology which cannot produce weapons-grade material so easily. The US side is reported to have proposals to help provide this if Pyongyang agrees to dismantle several of its existing facilities.
There has been no hint, however, whether North Korea will finally agree to allow the history of its nuclear facilities to be exposed. The IAEA believes Pyongyang is concealing unspecified quantities of plutonium - enough, according to the CIA, to make one or two crude nuclear devices - but the regime has fought bitterly at every turn to keep its past activities a secret.
Some members of the US administration have suggested that it is more important to head off North Korea's future nuclear development than to dwell too much on the past, but the senior US official reiterated yesterday that Washington would never sacrifice a full accounting in exchange for guarantees of good behaviour from now on.