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Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 July, 2005, 21:15 GMT 22:15 UK
US sees N Korea challenges ahead

By Jonathan Beale
BBC News, Washington

The main goal of Condoleezza Rice's visit to Asia has been achieved - namely to get North Korea back to the negotiating table over its nuclear weapons programme.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
The US has toned down its rhetoric

Thirteen months since the six party talks broke down, they are now set to resume in the last week of July.

But as the US secretary of state noted herself on her visit which took in three of the countries key to those negotiations - China, Japan and South Korea - this is just "a first step".

Briefing journalists on her way back, Condoleezza Rice posed the key question: "Is North Korea ready to make a strategic choice to give up its nuclear weapons programme?"

The resumption of six party talks is not an end in itself.

Carrot and stick

Despite American concerns that China was not putting enough pressure on North Korea to re-start the talks, Beijing has played a critical role as mediator.

South Korea would still like to see Washington to provide carrots as well as stick

That has also helped strained relations between the US and China.

China has been dealing directly with Pyongyang - it too is concerned about the instability posed by a nuclearised North Korea.

It is Chinese officials who have been doing a lot of the leg work and its through China that North Korea's leader Kim Jong-il has reportedly expressed his desire for a nuclear free Korean peninsula.

The North Korean leader made a point of thanking China for its "unremitting efforts" - an indication of who he thinks should get the credit for restarting the talks.

South Korea has also been offering incentives for North Korea to resume the talks.

It is after all the country that has to live alongside its unpredictable neighbour and face the military consequences.

North Korea's food and electricity shortages pose a problem for Seoul too.

So South Korea has said that it will provide its neighbour with two million kilowatts of electricity as part of a deal to reward a de-nuclearised North Korea.

Condoleezza Rice has welcomed the offer while making clear that the communist state must first agree to scrap its nuclear weapons programme.

South Korea would still like to see Washington to provide carrots as well as stick.

What happens next?

The US is being careful not to antagonise North Korea.

North Korean border guard
North Korea under Kim Jong Il is a secretive state

Condoleezza Rice has not withdrawn her description of it as "an outpost of tyranny" but she has avoided repeating that phrase.

One of the main reasons why Kim Jong-il says he has agreed to the resumption of talks is that the US attitude to his country is less hostile.

Certainly the rhetoric has softened.

But its still unclear what incentives the US may offer to get North Korea to disarm.

Condoleezza Rice has indicated that any reward will only come after proof that North Korea has abandoned its nuclear weapons programme.

For the moment the US is focused on presenting a united front when North Korea returns to the negotiations.

Christopher Hill - the US Assistant Secretary of State - has stayed behind in the region for trilateral talks with South Korea and Japan.

The US sees the threat of isolation as an important factor in getting Pyongyang to negotiate seriously.

Broken promises

Much of the talks' failure or success will be down to one man - Kim Jong-il, North Korea's unpredictable dictator.

He is a man who is clearly more concerned about his own survival than that of his people.

It is his own paranoia that has driven his country's desire to obtain nuclear weapons. It is impossible to predict his next move and he's surrounded himself in secrecy.

His word would not be enough to reassure America that he is prepared to abandon his weapons programme.

After all he has made promises in the past that he has failed to keep.

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