Virtually unnoticed amid the coverage of the Abu Ghraib mess and the slaying of Nick Berg, so-called "six party" talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons program are underway in Beijing. They do not, however, seem to be going well.
This is unsurprising. The U.S. wants North Korea to dismantle all vestiges of its nuclear-arms effort, including a suspected uranium-enrichment program. North Korea, on the other hand, wants to be paid off for pausing its program.
"We came to discuss compensation for a nuclear freeze," the chief North Korean delegate, Ri Gun, is quoted as saying. "A nuclear development program involving uranium enrichment does not exist." The U.S. wants a complete and verifiable dismantling of the program.
Clearly, there is quite a gap between these positions. Russia's delegate (the other participating countries are China, South Korea and Japan) says there's no hope of a breakthrough at these working-level talks. That would have to come later at higher-level discussions, which are scheduled for June.
The crisis, which still has the potential to become a nuclear confrontation - something the world has been spared since the Cuban Missile Crisis - began in October 2002 when U.S. officials said the North had disclosed that it had a uranium-enrichment program, the same one it now says doesn't exist.
The North Koreans are not only paranoid about U.S. intentions, they're canny negotiators, which makes them tough and frustrating to deal with.
Now Charles "Jack" Pritchard, who resigned last fall as the State Department's go-to guy for North Korea, says Bush administration's preoccupation with Iraq has left the U.S. exposed to a dangerous threat that is probably becoming more perilous. Reports in recent months have suggested that the North Korean regime has added perhaps another half-dozen nuclear weapons to the one or two it was thought to have had when the crisis began.
"This administration has adamantly refused to deal directly with North Korea, and they are not going to make any progress until that happens," Pritchard said in an interview with Michael Gordon of the International Herald Tribune. "And there have been no red lines. We have never said, 'If you do this here are the consequences.' "
Others believe that regardless of what the U.S. does not much will happen until after the presidential election. No point in beginning serious discussions with the Bush people when they may not be there next year, this view holds.
Former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung says the nuclear standoff would not be difficult to resolve - if the U.S. and North Korea wanted to resolve it. We don't seem to have reached that point yet.
Note: If you want to keep up with developments on the Korean Peninsula, North Korea Zone, a site run by a former CNN reporter, is a good place to start. Besides its own posts, there are links to other Korea blogs, many Asian newspapers and other sources.