Experts say conditions are right for talks with N. Korea

( вЂ" Talks beginning Thursday on halting North Korea's atomic weapons program are bedeviled by a fundamental question: Is the newest self-proclaimed member of the nuclear club willing to give up that membership?

Successive rounds of six-nation negotiations over the past four years, involving the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia, have ended in disappointment, limiting expectations and calling into question the North's motives, reports Trend.

Still, most at the bargaining table agree that disappointing talks are better than no talks at all, given what the cornered, desperate and extremely proud state might do if left to its own devices. For decades, North Korea has kept its citizens in near-permanent war readiness and last October tested a nuclear weapon during a 15-month lapse in talks.

A debate among North Korea experts centers on whether the regime in Pyongyang, North Korea's capital, sees nuclear weapons as an end in themselves or a means to be bargained away for aid and trade.

North Korea has limited leverage and few bargaining chips beyond the threat of armed conflict, analysts say, which helps explain why it has repeatedly balked at anything approaching a deal.

``Real negotiations will be very basic if they are held at all,'' said Chen Fengjun, research director of the Korean Peninsula Center at Beijing University. ``Despite huge pressure from the international community, North Korea sees nuclear weapons as their lifeline and only card, not to be given up easily.''

Yet despite generally low expectations for the latest talks taking place in Beijing, experts see favorable conditions if the North decides to deal.

Japan's Asahi Shimbun newspaper reported this week that North Korea would consider halting work on its nuclear reactors in return for at least 500,000 tons of heavy fuel oil annually, an end to U.S. financial sanctions and an agreement drop it from the U.S. list of pariah states that sponsor terrorism. North Korea has a history of inflated bargaining positions on the eve of negotiations.

``I have not discussed this (deal) at all in my consultations with (North Korea), though I think it is quite possible that it will come up in our talks this weekend,'' chief U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill told reporters in Tokyo on Tuesday.

The Asahi article, based on an interview with think tank analyst David Albright and former State Department official Joel Wit following their recent trip to the North, also said North Korea would be willing to resume International Atomic Energy Agency inspections after a four-year hiatus and reactivate monitoring cameras. But the isolated state reportedly said it would not agree to inspections of reactors where spent nuclear rods are reprocessed.

More broadly, analysts say, the United States is showing greater flexibility than before November's midterm election, when some Washington hard-liners opposed any negotiations with the Stalinist state. They point in particular to a U.S. willingness to ease some financial sanctions related to $24 million in North Korean assets held in a Macao bank imposed for alleged money laundering and counterfeiting.

North Korea, meanwhile, has an interest in relieving some of the economic pressure it faces amid fears that food shortages could spur dissent and erode survival of the ruling party. It also is aware that walking away from negotiations or taking the more drastic step of testing a second atomic device could prompt harsh sanctions from China, a key source of fuel and food, and the rest of the global community in the form of threatened U.N. sanctions.

Succession concerns also may be weighing on the North Korean leadership. Kim Jong-Il, 65, reportedly has three sons and two daughters by three different women, although details of the ruling family's affairs are a closely kept secret.

Kim's oldest son, 35-year-old Kim Jong-nam, was photographed last week by the Hong Kong media emerging from the luxury Mandarin Oriental hotel in Macau. This spurred reports that the son frequents casinos and saunas and favors late-night drinking sessions of whiskey and cognac.

Kim Jong-nam reportedly fell out of favor in 2001 after he embarrassed the regime by trying to sneak into Japan on a false passport, supposedly in a bid to see Tokyo Disneyland. Some reports suggest Kim's second son, Kim Jong-chol, 25, also is out of favor in his father's eyes, considered ``too girlie,'' by one account, although other reports say his image has been seen on lapel pins. Others peg Kim's third son, Kim Jong-un, 23, as heir apparent in the world's only hereditary communist regime.

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