Leading article: Fourth time lucky?

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Today's talks in Beijing start without the breakthrough. But the very fact that the various parties - consisting of North and South Korea, China, Russia and Japan as well as the US - have agreed to hold them gives rise to some degree of optimism that positions may be shifting. The government of Pyongyang, having announced it has developed at least one and possibly more nuclear warheads, now appears to want to discuss ways of normalising its relations with the rest of the world and ensuring the aid it so badly needs to meet its parlous economic state. There is in its approach at least a hint it might be prepared to negotiate away its new-found nuclear status in return for US assurances over security and trade.

Washington for its part also seems to be softening its position from outright hostility to North Korea, and the hope that rising pressure could bring about the fall in the regime of Kim Jong-il, to an acknowledgement that it may be better to cut a deal to denuclearise the regime rather than to seek its downfall.

That leaves a huge stretch of ground to cover before the talks get anywhere. After all the raised hopes and fallen expectations of previous talks, there remains a large credibility gap between Pyongyang's words and its deeds. With good reason, the US Congress remains extremely doubtful about doing anything that might prop up the odious regime of Kim Jong-il. Their hostility in turn has made it difficult for a White House divided in its advice and instincts to present a clear policy towards North Korea. Does it want accommodation or regime change, or could the one lead to the other?

It is the same question that comes up in all the discussions over Iran's nuclear ambitions, as well as Washington's relations with other countries in the Middle East. But North Korea has the weapons now, and America's allies in the region, as well as China and Russia, are pushing hard for constructive talks that offer North Korea real carrots as well as constant sticks. If Washington is to show a more flexible stance anywhere, it may well be here.