After months of impasse and heightened tension between the United States and North Korea over the communist state's nuclear weapons programme, six-party talks to discuss the situation are finally due to begin in Beijing tomorrow.
While it is a welcome relief for the region, the path to peace is likely to remain bumpy. Each of the countries involved - North and South Korea, Japan, Russia, China and the US - have different agendas and priorities, and reconciling them will require diplomatic acumen as well as flexibility and creativity.
North Korea's bottom line will be to seek regime survival by securing a non-aggression pledge from the US, which would eventually lead to diplomatic recognition. It is also expected to demand the lifting of US sanctions. In exchange, it may offer to dismantle its nuclear weapons programme in stages. It may, however, attempt to hold on to its nuclear arsenal one way or another.
The US position has always been that North Korea must scrap its nuclear weapons programme unconditionally. Any new arrangement must be enforced with rigorous inspection and verification provisions. Officials in Washington may also seek an end to North Korea's chemical and biological weapons programmes, as well as the suspension of its missile sales. In return, the Bush administration would pledge, without committing to a non-aggression pact, not to attack North Korea and to relax curbs on economic assistance.
China is widely seen as being responsible for bringing all concerned parties together. Its fundamental interests remain the stability and denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. It may oppose any high-handedness at the talks, including efforts to impose sanctions on its neighbour.
South Korea's reaction to the nuclear crisis has been influenced by its desire to seek a peaceful resolution and to continue its 'sunshine policy' of engagement with the North. The government in Seoul continues to stress the need for stability, a nuclear-free peninsula and dialogue, even though it has shifted from an earlier call for direct talks between the US and the North to endorsing multilateral discussions.
Japan's policy is rather ambivalent. While the government is sensitive to Chinese and South Korean concerns about stability, and supportive of a non-military resolution, it is receptive to more stringent measures to pressure North Korea, including its participation in the 11-nation Proliferation Security Initiative, an effort to block North Korean shipments of nuclear and other weapons, and contraband materials.
Russia wants to be involved in any settlement of the nuclear issue and, therefore, to be seen to have a voice in regional affairs. It has proposed a regional arrangement that provides a security guarantee to North Korea, thus alleviating the North's fears and paving the way for it to dismantle its nuclear weapons programmes.
The talks will have to address these divergent concerns. Clearly, none of the parties want war. But a military confrontation cannot be ruled out. Instead, a phased, integrated approach should be developed to provide stability and lay the groundwork for long-term peace on the peninsula.
This is the minimum that must be achieved. It requires North Korea to halt all nuclear activities, including the reprocessing of spent fuel rods, and its enrichment programmes. This moratorium should be followed by the negotiation of a comprehensive arrangement to verifiably dismantle the nuclear programmes and to resume fuel supplies through the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organisation.
A multilateral accord guaranteeing North Korea's security could then be developed, with US participation. It should incorporate key elements of inter-Korean arms-control provisions negotiated in the early 1990s. There must also be a reduction in conventional arms in the demilitarised zone. North Korea and the United States should be encouraged to explore paths to full political and economic relations.
North Korea's economy is in tatters. The international community, in particular development-assistance agencies and financial institutions (for example, the UN Development Programme, the Asian Development Bank and the International Monetary Fund), could play a prominent role.
These are daunting tasks. Can North Korea be persuaded to give up its nuclear weapons programme? The Iraq war may be one reason for the regime to want to hold on to its nuclear capabilities. In addition, there will be doubts about any new deal. There is also the possibility that North Korea will continue its nuclear enrichment programmes even as it is engaged in multilateral talks. Finally, within the Bush administration, opinions differ as to the best approach to resolve the crisis: regime change or diplomacy.
The stakes are very high. Having endured uncertainty and escalating tensions for more than 10 months, all parties should seize the opportunity to reach pragmatic solutions. Twice, the region has been on the brink of war. This chance should not be allowed to slip away, or it will be too late for all concerned.
Yuan Jing-dong is a senior research associate at the Monterey Institute's centre for nonproliferation studies in California