BEIJING - Diplomats from six nations began meetings here this morning about North Korea's nuclear program but at a table with so many agendas, analysts say, that the best hopes for any meaningful progress rest on the diplomacy of one country in particular: China.
None of the participants - the United States, Japan, Russia, China and the two Koreas - has given any indication that the three days of talks will produce anything substantive. Beyond hopes for more talks, analysts said, the best-case scenario would be a statement at the end of the talks in which North Korea declares a willingness to end its nuclear program in the future, and the other nations declare interest in aiding Pyongyang and assuring its security.
But after months of posturing and tough rhetoric from North Korea and the Bush administration, participants and experts had declared that merely holding the talks marked a success. And many credit China's surprisingly assertive diplomacy with bringing North Korea to the six-sided table.
"It's an opaque exchange between Pyongyang and Beijing, but our sense has been that they've been extremely helpful," a U.S. State Department official said recently, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Just getting us to the table, they've had a real central role, and they should be given some credit for that."
China's diplomats met for weeks with neighboring countries and with the United States to organize this week's talks, said Chinese experts. Some analysts believe North Korea agreed to participate only after Chinese President Hu Jintao sent North Korean President Kim Jong Il a letter urging him to engage, which was apparently hand-delivered last month by Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Dai Bingguo.
All four of North Korea's neighbors, and the United States, want to prevent the Korean peninsula from going nuclear. But China, as North Korea's historical ally and main supplier of fuel and food aid, has the most direct leverage with Kim's regime.
"How much China can push North Korea, that will be the key," said Park Syung Je of the Institute for Peace Affairs in Seoul.
China's high-profile role in these talks reflects a shift that has developed in the 10 months since North Korea admitted the existence of a uranium enrichment program. Chinese experts say the shift in China's public attitude reflects how seriously it views North Korea's efforts to develop nuclear weapons as a potential threat to its security and domestic stability.
"We really realized how dangerous it will be if Pyongyang finally pursues [nuclear weapons]," said Zhu Feng, professor of international relations at Beijing University.
The Korea debate here is not finished, and it intensified early this year when leading academics openly questioned whether it was wise to continue viewing North Korea primarily as an ally and security buffer against the U.S. military presence in South Korea and Japan.
In late winter, China cut off oil to North Korea for three days, a not-so-subtle message that may have secured North Korea's participation in three-party talks in April. Even then, China insisted its role was merely to bring the two parties together.
But those April talks may have spurred China to step up its involvement after North Korea reportedly told U.S. envoy James Kelly that it had nuclear weapons and had almost completed reprocessing 8,000 spent fuel rods to obtain plutonium.
A nuclear North Korea would be worrisome enough, Zhu and others argue, especially considering the volatile reputation of North Korea's leader. Officials in Beijing are also aware that if Pyongyang goes nuclear, South Korea, Japan and - of greatest concern to China - Taiwan could take the same step.
The Bush administration says that only by applying pressure in concert with all of the region's major players can the United States reasonably hope to end the North's nuclear ambitions.
The United States insists on strict conditions for dismantling Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program, including on-site verification - conditions that it believes can be secured only with the help of China.
But even with diplomats from six countries in the same room, it will be difficult, "both in form and content" as one Chinese analyst put it, to make the talks work. All of North Korea's neighbors have an interest in keeping nuclear weapons off their doorstep but have varying priorities.
"There are six parties involved, so even North Korea, the United States, the two parties' positions cannot be reconciled very easily, not to [mention] six parties'," said Cao Huayin, a foreign policy analyst for China Reform Forum, a think tank in Beijing.
Only Japan, angry with North Korea over its past abductions of Japanese citizens and its provocative missile tests, has hewed closely to the United States' tough line.
Russia and China, fearful of an economic crisis in North Korea that could push hundreds of thousands of refugees into their countries, have an interest in preserving the stability of Kim's regime. They have opposed any sanctions against the North and are pushing the United States to provide the security guarantee Kim wants.
Chinese Vice President Zeng Qinghong reiterated this view in a statement quoted yesterday by the official New China News Agency: "China holds that the Korean peninsula should be nuclear-free, and reasonable security concerns of [North Korea] should be addressed."
Seoul, Washington's longtime ally, has been pursuing closer ties with North Korea for more than five years, including substantial economic investment and food aid. The South Korean government has had considerable differences with the Bush administration over how to handle the North's nuclear threat.
South Korea, which relies on the United States for security on the peninsula, may have little choice except to defer to the United States this week, but North Korea is expected to exploit any opening it can.
"If we cannot present a united front, then North Korea will use the division between the U.S. and [South Korea] to derail the talks and weaken the alliance," said Jon B. Wolfsthal, deputy director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
The Bush administration has been divided on how best to deal with North Korea - whether to engage Kim directly or require unilateral concessions before any engagement. The United States decided on the second course after the North admitted the existence of an enrichment program. Pyongyang then withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and reopened a key nuclear facility.
The administration's position may have softened, but the resignation last week of Jack Pritchard, a State Department special envoy more inclined toward engagement with Pyongyang, only highlights an internal debate that apparently has yet to be settled.
Often seemingly unpredictable, North Korea may try to derail the talks, but it appears to be interested in pursuing dialogue. Said a Western diplomat yesterday: "My sense is everybody's breathing a sigh of relief that they're just sitting down and talking with each other."
But skeptics in Washington and in the region will question North Korea's motives in this dialogue until the end.
"North Korea will want to have more meetings because they need more time to develop nuclear weapons and to develop long-range missiles that can reach the United States," said Park. "But who knows. When you go buy a lottery ticket, you're not expecting to be a winner, right? You're just buying a hope. ... This six-party talk for me is like a lottery ticket."