BEIJING - American and North Korean negotiators held their first direct talks in months yesterday, speaking privately on the sidelines of an international meeting aimed at persuading a defiant North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program.
There were no indications of overall progress on the opening day of six-party talks scheduled to last until tomorrow, but there also were no apparent breakdowns, according to brief accounts provided by several participating delegations.
In what was described as a plenary session, representatives from each of the six countries meeting around a hexagonal conference table in a Chinese state guesthouse laid out their own version of the nuclear standoff threatening the world.
The United States, along with South Korea, Japan, China and Russia, share the goal of pushing North Korea to renounce its nuclear ambitions. But the United States has talked toughest about the potential consequences, refusing to rule out the possibility of military action if North Korea does not back down.
North Korea is demanding a security treaty with the United States before it will consider giving up its nuclear program, but the Bush administration has held firm to its requirement that Pyongyang take the first step.
If a deal is possible, it is expected to take months or longer to hash out, and will likely include an international accord to grant North Korea some type of security guarantee and a large infusion of aid in return for the verified dismantling of its nuclear program.
At least some of this was discussed yesterday in general terms.
"The U.S. side made comments about easing North Korea's security concerns, but I cannot give you any more details," said Wie Sung Rak, director general at the South Korean Foreign Ministry's North American Affairs Bureau. "From what North Koreans said during the meeting, we could read that North Korea is willing to resolve the nuclear issue through dialogue."
The fact that Americans and North Koreans met separately on the first day was significant because their relationship is so tenuous they had clashed over the terms of any gathering. The United States would agree only to an international six-way meeting, while North Korea had demanded one-on-one talks with the United States.
Members of the South Korean and Japanese delegations described a break in official activities in which unidentified Americans and North Koreans moved to a corner of the large conference room for a private discussion.
A Japanese Foreign Ministry official at the talks described the bilateral meeting as a "natural" occurrence of the kind that frequently happens on the sidelines of United Nations conferences. The official declined, however, to speculate on the discussion. The U.S. and North Korean delegations were not available for comment.
The main sticking point in negotiations is the lack of trust in the reclusive regime of Kim Jong Il, which secretly restarted its nuclear activities in violation of a 1994 agreement.
North Korea is considered to be dangerous and unpredictable. It is nearly bankrupt and friendless, and is a master of using threats and political brinkmanship to garner attention and extract concessions from the outside world.
It remains unanswerable whether North Korea intends to pursue a nuclear weapons program because it believes it must defend itself, or if it is menacing the world with the intention of trading it away for a guarantee of security and aid.
Russia's deputy foreign minister, Alexander Losyukov, head of that nation's delegation, told Russian news media that North Korea "may drop its nuclear program if it gets legally binding guarantees that the United States won't attack it." But he said North Korea "will not allow any inspections unless they are convinced that the American threat is neutralized."
He also was quoted as musing on the possibility that North Korea would not back down and that a dangerous confrontation could be brewing.
"The United States may impose sanctions to isolate North Korea," he said. "North Korea is certain to see this as a declaration of war. In other words, the countries will eventually find themselves on the very front lines of a hot conflict."
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.