BEIJING — BEIJING - The drama of the previous round of diplomatic talks was alarming enough, as North Korea and the United States seemed to prepare for the worst. North Korea threatened to test an atomic bomb to prove its arrival as a nuclear state. In response, the Bush administration sharpened its hard-line rhetoric.
But six months later, as a new round of six-nation talks opens here today, there has been a great deal of quiet diplomacy and, noticeably, no mushroom cloud. Diplomats and experts say that North Korea and the United States might again use the talks as the stage for bravado and tough talk - with any meaningful conciliation coming later, if at all.
"One of the principles for the North Koreans has been to respond to hard-line tactics with super hard-line tactics," said Zhang Liangui, a North Korea expert at the influential Central Party School in Beijing. "I don't think this is going to change."
In the 16 months since the nuclear standoff began with North Korea, the United States' "hard-line" approach has been to cut off oil shipments, insist on Pyongyang's unilateral dismantling of its nuclear program and attempt to isolate the impoverished country from its neighbors.
Pyongyang's "super hard-line" response has been to expel atomic inspectors from the country, resume the production of weapons-grade plutonium, declare that it has a bomb and, as of August, talk about testing it.
Some diplomats hope that this hard-line equation will create results at this week's session, which includes representatives from Japan, South Korea, Russia and the host, China. Disclosures about nuclear sales by Pakistan's top atomic scientist have exposed North Korea's black-market nuclear dealings and its uranium enrichment effort, a secret program that U.S. officials asked Pyongyang about in October 2002, sparking the current tensions.
North Korea could back away from its denials about the uranium enrichment program and formally offer to freeze nuclear efforts as a gesture of goodwill in return for some concrete gesture from the United States.
"I think they've been starting to send signals privately that they get the message," said Scott Snyder, the Korea representative in Seoul for the U.S.-backed Asia Foundation.
One problem even under this hopeful scenario is that the harsh words exchanged by the United States and North Korea have created a standoff in which neither side wants to lose face. If Pyongyang's envoy to the talks makes a concession, it might come disguised in tough words, which some worry could be intentionally interpreted in Washington as intransigence.
"Usually what happens when the North Koreans make that kind of concession is they try to drown that out in rhetoric," said Snyder, author of a book on North Korean negotiating tactics. "And if the North Koreans follow their standard operating procedure, there'll be plenty that can be used in order to suggest that the North Koreans are as colorful as ever and as dangerous as ever.
"It's ironic," Snyder said, "because essentially what we've been saying is that we can only measure them by their actions."
Officials in Pyongyang and Washington may perceive a diplomatic advantage in tough North Korean rhetoric. Kim Jong Il, the North Korean leader, wants to create as dramatic a situation as possible in hopes of extracting a favorable cash settlement, analysts say. The Bush administration wants North Korea's neighbors to close ranks behind the U.S. position and isolate Kim.
Domestic political considerations may be just as important, diplomats and experts say, and appear to have played a role in reports from the August talks of Pyongyang's threatened atomic test.
During the talks, Bush administration sources in Washington said that North Korea had declared it had a bomb and was prepared to prove it.
But that, some diplomats said later, was a selectively hard-line interpretation of North Korea's demeanor at the talks, intended to isolate not only Pyongyang but those in the Bush administration advocating a softer approach. U.S. diplomats in Beijing, generally barred from speaking to the press, were said to be frustrated with the version of events coming out of Washington.
If the news from Washington was gamesmanship, it had little public impact in China and South Korea, where news coverage, state-controlled in Beijing and politically influenced in Seoul, ignored or played down the reports of a possible nuclear test. Instead, the coverage focused on such positives as North Korea's declared "willingness to keep the peninsula nuclear-free" in exchange for a security guarantee, as the English-language Korea Times reported Aug. 30 under the hopeful headline, "Has the Clock Stopped on NK Time Bomb?"
This disparity in coverage suggests how the six-party talks have become a complicated public relations battle to sway not only the participants but each nation's domestic audience.
South Korea's government, for example, has sought to avoid antagonizing North Korea, repeatedly urging the United States to seek a peaceful resolution. That conciliatory attitude is consistently reflected in South Korean news coverage, which tends to interpret even minor diplomatic developments as a sign of success.
The high-profile nature of the talks may further hinder the possibility of a breakthrough, so some diplomats hope the parties will agree to follow up the session with meetings of lower-level envoys.
What is unclear is whether the United States and North Korea will replay their hard-line script.
The atmosphere going into the talks suggests that they will. The Bush administration has declared that Libya, with its recently declared abandonment of its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs, is the model to follow for North Korea. But North Korea, experts say, knows that in a presidential election year, the Bush administration might consider its options limited. Moreover, they say, Kim is highly unlikely to make the kind of about-face that Libya's Muammar el Kadafi has made.
"The North Koreans would never make a 180-degree turn and show weakness," said Zhang of the Central Party School. "The North Korean government could come up with no suitable excuse for the North Korean people to do something like that, because before now, the North Korean government has always felt that it is glorifying to challenge the United States."