SEOUL, South Korea (AP) _ Negotiators from the United States and North Korea will sit down with other regional powers for the first time in 13 months to determine the nuclear fate of the peninsula, with the North's first atomic weapons test adding pressure for elusive results.
The six countries meeting Monday in Beijing for the talks _ also including China, Japan, Russia and South Korea _ will pick up where they left off in November 2005, seeking to implement the only agreement ever reached at the negotiations.
The main U.S. envoy, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, said this week in Washington that the ``purpose is to come to an agreement and have some effect on the ground.''
But Hill remained cautious. ``I don't want to be optimistic that we are going to achieve that, but that is certainly the objective,'' he said.
Hill met last month in Beijing with his North Korean counterpart to offer what the United States believed to be a timeline _ and incentives _ for the North to dismantle its nuclear program. The North has not publicly responded to the offer.
Some details leaked in various news reports say the North would be required to take early steps like shutting down its main nuclear reactor. The U.S. would eventually sign an agreement to formally end the Korean War, halted by a cease-fire in 1953 that has never been replaced by a peace treaty.
Time is important, with the North required to make decisive moves toward denuclearization within two years _ before President Bush leaves office.
The U.S. has agreed to a separate working group to discuss financial restrictions, placed on a bank with which the North did business, for its alleged complicity in the regime's counterfeiting of U.S. currency and money laundering to sell weapons of mass destruction. That financial issue had been the North's latest reason for staying away from the nuclear talks, claiming Washington maintained a ``hostile'' attitude.
Because of its Oct. 9 nuclear test, the North will now insist it be treated as a nuclear power.
``What they have in mind is to have the status of a nuclear weapons state,'' said Kim Tae-woo, senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul.
The only thing that could change their attitude would be a ``full guarantee of the North Korean system and safety of the regime,'' Kim said _ not any lesser economic assistance or political recognition.
Despite U.N. sanctions passed in response to the nuclear test, the North's key trade partners _ China and South Korea _ appear to have balked at tough measures to entirely isolate the communist nation.
The North may believe their reticence buys it time.
``The North believes that it can afford to be patient, waiting for a new American administration in 2009. That may well not be prudent, but then the North does not always seem to value prudence,'' said Robert Gallucci, a former U.S. diplomat who signed a 1994 denuclearization deal with North Korea. That deal fell apart after the latest nuclear standoff began in late 2002, when the U.S. accused the North of secret enriching uranium.
South Korea's new foreign minister, himself a former nuclear negotiator, said Friday the prospects for the talks were ``extremely difficult.'' Song Min-soon said South Korea is ``never optimistic'' about the negotiations, but would still try its best, Yonhap news agency reported.