Diplomacy - a futile business?
The diplomats call it a 'recess', but the three-week break in the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons programme may signal the futility - if not the failure - of diplomacy as a solution.
That's the impression that emerges from nearly two weeks of on-again, off-again talks in Beijing that engendered false hopes, at least in South Korea, that the process might end in a face-saving piece of paper called a 'statement of principles' on which all sides could agree.
South Korean officials blame the US almost as much as North Korea for the inability of the sides to come to terms. South Korea's chief envoy, Song Min-soon, has said the US and North Korea remain apart on critical points, including whether North Korea has the right to harness nuclear energy for direly needed electrical power rather than warheads.
The US position is that North Korea essentially forfeited that right by forging ahead with a programme for processing highly enriched uranium for warheads in violation of the 1994 Geneva agreement, under which the North shut down its nuclear facility at Yongbyon. In exchange, the US agreed to send heavy fuel oil to North Korea during construction of twin light-water nuclear reactors for which South Korea and Japan agreed to put up most of the US$5 billion bill.
The whole deal fell apart in October 2002 after North Korea acknowledged the existence of the uranium programme to a delegation to Pyongyang led by James Kelly, at that time the chief US negotiator on North Korea.
Pyongyang, however, insists the United States, South Korea and Japan have to live up to that deal and go on with construction of the reactors, and emphatically denies the existence of the uranium programme, charging that Mr Kelly completely distorted whatever he was told.
The distrust between Washington and Pyongyang is such that Mr Kelly's successor, Christopher Hill, has repeatedly said the US has to see North Korea at least begin to shut down its nuclear programme. North Korea has said proudly that it has restarted its facility at Yongbyon and is now producing warheads from plutonium, while again refusing to acknowledge anything to do with building warheads from uranium. South Korean officials give Mr Hill high marks for diplomacy, but question whether his approach represents any shift in US policy. Mr Hill has made a show of co-ordinating closely with Mr Song.
Mr Hill calls the talks 'excruciating' and profusely thanks China, as both host and creator of a series of draft statements, for having done a masterful job of pushing the process ahead.
He also says North Korea stands alone in refusing to compromise on his proposal for it to begin to dismantle its nuclear weapons programme, while South Korea begins to make good on its offer to provide the North with half its energy needs.
All the sweet talk, however, may get nowhere as long as Pyongyang sticks to its guns. It is unlikely to return to the table with any notion of a shift in policy, nor is the US.
In fact, the next step, while the talks simmer on, may be for the US to demand a debate in the United Nations Security Council on sanctions. John Bolton, the new US ambassador to the UN, has been calling for that for more than two years.
North Korea has said sanctions would be tantamount to a 'declaration of war', but China is certain to veto any resolution on sanctions in the security council.
In the meantime, look for more diplomacy, more rhetoric - and no solution to the North Korean nuclear standoff.
Journalist and author Donald Kirk has been covering the Korean nuclear issue for more than 10 years