BEIJING - After four days of negotiations, the U.S.-led six-party talks with North Korea over its covert nuclear weapons program ended yesterday with no visible progress made except for a commitment to hold more meetings.
North Korea took no steps to back down from its nuclear ambitions and blocked attempts by the United States and its four negotiating partners to formulate and sign a communique that would commit the parties to moving ahead, diplomats said.
Instead, it was left to China, as host, to announce that all sides had agreed to set up a working group and hold another round of talks by the end of June.
After a 16-month standoff, the defiant and highly militarized regime of Kim Jong Il appeared set on holding out for as long as possible in the hopes of striking the most favorable deal.
The unexpected development of having the meeting end without producing a document signed by North Korea represented a potentially serious setback, but negotiators insisted that it simply reflected the difficulty of coaxing officials in Pyongyang, the country's capital, into abandoning their nuclear programs.
A senior U.S. official claimed that the talks "exceeded" expectations because all four of the other participating nations - South Korea, China, Japan and Russia - now agreed in full on their objective: to demand the complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantling of North Korea's nuclear programs.
But overall there was no progress toward ending the standoff between North Korea and the United States: Each wants the other side to act first.
North Korea continued to insist that it will abandon its nuclear ambitions only after it receives security guarantees from the United States against a potential attack, as well as significant economic aid.
The United States, which has said it will not attack or invade, requires North Korea to move first to freeze its programs as a temporary step toward dismantling them.
Significantly, the meeting also failed to achieve one of the major benchmarks identified for success: extracting an admission from North Korea that it not only was pursuing a plutonium-based nuclear weapons program but also one that uses highly enriched uranium.
The United States said the regime admitted in 2002 to pursuing the uranium-based program, but North Korea has since denied making the statement.
The Bush administration argues that any deal over the North's nuclear developments must address both programs, and officials said before this round of talks that it would be difficult to proceed with negotiations without an acknowledgment from Pyongyang that it is pursuing more than one nuclear program.
The U.S. official involved in the talks said that North Korea again denied enriching uranium and asked the United States to present proof.
The American side refused, telling North Korea that uranium-based programs are easier to conceal than plutonium, and "if we were to tell you everything we know, it would make it easier for you to conceal your uranium-enrichment program."
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.