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Diplomats Gather for North Korea Nuclear Talks Amid Optimism

Senior international diplomats are arriving in the Chinese capital for another attempt to negotiate an end to North Korea's nuclear weapons capabilities. Unlike many past sessions, there has been considerable positive speculation about this round, with many experts predicting at least a partial deal may be struck. VOA's Kurt Achin has more from Beijing.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill said Wednesday that conditions may be right to start implementing North Korea's promise to end its nuclear weapons program. "It's a very important session,"

Hill noted. "We all know what we need to try to accomplish.... we're not going to finish that this week, we'll just maybe take a good first step."

Hill arrived in Beijing Wednesday to lead the U.S. delegation to talks on ending North Korea's nuclear programs. Host China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea begin meeting with the U.S. and North Korean negotiators Thursday.

Three years of negotiations have yielded little progress, and last October, North Korea tested its first nuclear explosive. But over the past few weeks, experts and negotiators have indicated things might change this time. Several news reports have said both sides might be willing to make initial steps toward fulfilling Pyongyang's promise to end its nuclear programs in return for aid and security guarantees.

The initial signs of progress came last month, after Hill met with his North Korean counterpart. Shortly after that meeting, a date was set for this round of talks. In addition, U.S. Treasury and North Korean officials met to discuss Pyongyang's demands that Washington lift financial sanctions on some North Korean enterprises.

Mike Chinoy specializes in North Korea as a fellow at the Pacific Council on International Relations in Los Angeles. He says some U.S. leaders who opposed engaging with North Korea, such as Vice President Dick Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, have been politically sidelined because of public disapproval of the U.S. military campaign in Iraq.

That, he says, gives Ambassador Hill a stronger hand than before to negotiate a deal.

"One question is, do the North Koreans appreciate this change? Do they feel there's enough of an opening for them to do something? The bigger question is, having declared themselves a nuclear power in a very public way with their test, and having trumpeted that internally - are there any circumstances under which the North would in fact agree to roll that back?" he said.

Chinoy and other experts say there are widespread expectations the United States may offer to lift at least part of the banking sanctions against North Korea, while Pyongyang may halt some or all of its nuclear production at least temporarily.

However, Hill and other U.S. officials have said in recent weeks that any agreement must eventually lead to North Korea completely shutting down its nuclear operations.

Ultimately, that could derail the talks. Many regional experts caution that North Korea has been unpredictable in the past, and that it may not be willing to ever give up its nuclear weapons.