BEIJING — As talks over North Korea's nuclear program stumble along, some scholars and policymakers around Asia now believe that the negotiations may never lead Pyongyang to cede all its nuclear weapons.
Instead, they say the best that can be hoped for is to halt North Korea from producing nuclear fuel to make any more weapons.
The view is far from universal, and the governments at multilateral talks over the North Korea nuclear program publicly stick to the objective of a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.
Privately, however, some experts on North Korea note a changing mood, saying the talks have become unpredictable even by the usual standards applied to the reclusive nation.
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"When you talk to the specialists, even government people, off the record, you hear, 'We don't have a better solution and if we can keep this thing frozen, that's the best we'll have,'" said Ralph A. Cossa, the president of the Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu arm of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Such views are rarely voiced in public because they threaten the six-party talks that began in 2003, held by China with the participation of Russia, Japan, the U.S. and the two Koreas, with the aim of rolling back North Korea's nuclear program.
"No one dares declare that we are prepared to accept a part of the nuclear program in North Korea," said Shi Yinhong, an international relations expert at People's University of China.
Shi said, however, that the Bush administration has softened its demands on Pyongyang and other nations have come to see partial success in the talks as better than a rupture. He cited a longstanding stumbling block this year over North Korea's still-secret declaration of its nuclear activities, and its haggling over a plan to verify such activities.
"Everyone with common sense knows that this statement of denuclearization is not complete," Shi said, adding that the negotiators "will pretend that it is good and wonderful . . . and declare it in ambiguous language and say (the talks have) made progress."
The senior U.S. negotiator on North Korea, Christopher Hill, traveled to Pyongyang Oct. 1-3 to seek the Kim regime's assent to a verification regime on its nuclear activities. On Oct. 11, the Bush administration removed North Korea from a list of nations considered state sponsors of terrorism, an incentive to get Pyongyang to resume disabling its nuclear plants.
The nuclear talks have stalled amid worsening tensions between North and South Korea and rumors that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, 66, remains in critical condition after reportedly suffering a stroke in early August.
Japan's Fuji Television showed footage Monday night of a man identified as Kim's eldest son, Kim Jong-nam, entering a Paris hospital last week for meetings with a neurosurgeon, who later departed for Beijing, a common stopover on the way to Pyongyang. The surgeon has declined to say whether he'd treat Kim.
Prime Minister Taro Aso of Japan appeared before a parliamentary committee on foreign policy Tuesday and said Kim's "condition isn't good."
"We don't think that he's in a state where he's incapable of making any decisions at all," Taro said, according to the Agence France-Presse news agency. "Our understanding is that if that were the case, we would be seeing different developments."
Mistrust between Washington and Pyongyang remains a major stumbling block to denuclearization, several scholars in Beijing and Seoul said.
"It would be extremely difficult to denuclearize North Korean weapons unless the North Korean military is sure there's no threat from the outside, particularly the United States," said Moon Chung-in, a professor at Seoul's Yonsei University and former national security adviser.
Moon said negotiators such as Hill wisely focus on North Korea's future capabilities rather than its existing weapons, leaving them for a later phase.
Even as the hopes that soared in February 2007 when North Korea signed on to a disarmament accord sink a bit, some senior scholars say the talks must be kept alive.
"The alternative would be terrible. Look at Iran," said Wu Jianmin, a career diplomat and former president of China Foreign Affairs University, referring to the threat that military sanctions could replace diplomacy against Tehran. "A diplomatic solution may not be very fast. (But) it's much better for the world."
An American expert based in Seoul, Daniel Pinkston of the International Crisis Group, which advocates nonviolent negotiations, said key points in the North Korea talks remain secret, making them difficult to assess. But Pinkston said that once the current phase of negotiations is complete, with a verification regime in place of the North's activities, the North would be bound to take steps on its existing nuclear weapons.
"When the rubber hits the road is in the third phase," Pinkston said. "It's very clear that they are required to rejoin the NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty). If you rejoin the NPT, you can't have nuclear weapons."
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