The announcement that the United States, North Korea and China will hold talks next week in Beijing over North Korea's nuclear program is a welcome development and an apparent victory for the Bush administration's decision to oppose direct, one-on-one talks with Pyongyang. It remains to be seen, however, if the positions of the United States and North Korea can be brought together to address the severe security concerns raised by Pyongyang's active nuclear weapons program.

Since North Korea expelled International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors in December 2002, it has announced its withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, restarted a plutonium production reactor, continued its development of a uranium enrichment capability and could be only months or weeks away from extracting weapons plutonium for its stock of 8,000 spent fuel rods. North Korea maintains that its withdrawal from the NPT became effective on April 10th, but some countries, including Japan, claim that they have not been directly notified by North Korea as required by Article X of the NPT and, therefore, North Korea's withdrawal is not yet in effect.

The United States maintains that it is prepared to launch a bold initiative toward North Korea but that it cannot do so while North Korea maintains an active nuclear program. Washington has publicly stated that North Korea must dismantle its uranium enrichment effort before broader talks can begin, lest such efforts be seen as rewarding bad behavior by North Korea. US goals of the talks next week are likely to center on steps North Korea must take to freeze and begin eliminating its nuclear program. While the North Korean position is not fully known, it is likely that North Korea will resist eliminating its nuclear program unless it can obtain concrete incentives and commitments from the United States on a host of issues, including a pact of non-aggression, lifting of sanctions, diplomatic recognition and economic assistance.

China's role could be critical in convincing North Korea to curtail its nuclear activities but could also constrain some U.S. efforts to pressure North Korea into compliance with its non-proliferation obligations. The absence of key U.S. allies South Korea and Japan, which both have direct security interests at stake in North Korea, is also likely to require delicate handling by the Bush administration as the tripartite talks move forward.