Russia, the United States, China, North Korea, South Korea and Japan -- the participants in the six-party talks -- agreed last fall that the second stage of Pyongyang's nuclear disarmament would be completed by Dec. 31. It provides for decommissioning the Yongbyon facilities frozen at the first stage and for the disclosure of all of North Korea's nuclear programs.
The visit by the six states to Yongbyon in late November established that it is technically impossible to quickly decommission the five megawatt reactor, in particular to remove and utilize its graphite rods.
But the main problem concerns differences between North Korea and its partners in the dialogue on Pyongyang's commitments regarding its other nuclear programs.
This was most likely the reason for the six countries' failure to meet as scheduled in Beijing last week and for their decision to postpone the next round of the talks and the ministerial conference expected to boost the dialogue, whose outlook is becoming increasingly vague.
The United States will remove North Korea from its list of terrorism supporters only if the six-country group is satisfied with the information it is getting about the country's nuclear programs. Pyongyang badly wants to get off the list, according to the Choson Shinbo newspaper, which quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan on the issue. In fact this is the main demand of the North Korean delegation.
But North Korea, which tested its first nuclear device in October 2006, does not want to discuss the liquidation of its nuclear weapons (nobody knows how many it has). It is ready to discuss only its nuclear plans, i.e. the commitment to stop the production of nuclear weapons and transfer of nuclear technology to other countries.
Unfortunately, having agreed to disclose its nuclear programs, North Korea was not going to provide information on its available nuclear potential, while Washington expected to learn not only about the number of North Korea's nuclear weapons, but also about production and storage sites.
Pyongyang said it would discuss possible liquidation of its nuclear arsenal at a later stage, and only if the United States reconsiders its hostile attitude and agrees to supply light-water reactors to North Korea.
Before George W. Bush became president, a U.S.-led international consortium was building a light-water nuclear power plant in North Korea, but the project was stopped after it became clear Pyongyang was not fulfilling its side of the bargain. Bush proclaimed North Korea part of the "axis of evil" and said that it has no right to develop nuclear technology, even for peaceful purposes.
Washington believes that Pyongyang must disclose information about its nuclear arsenal, uranium enrichment programs (if any), and suspected nuclear cooperation with Syria.
Last week the United States and North Korea negotiated the improvement of bilateral relations at a meeting in New York. Deputy Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan met with his counterpart from the six-country group, as well as with two former U.S. secretaries of state, Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright.
According to news reports, they said that it would be very difficult to remove North Korea from the list of terrorist nations unless Pyongyang proved it had not helped Syria -- another nation on the U.S. list -- with its nuclear program.
South Korean news agency Yonhap reported that Kim Gye Gwan said the charges about his country's nuclear deal with Syria were invented by madmen.
Washington is not satisfied with such statements. It wants reliable proof, but Pyongyang officials reject the demand as unsubstantiated.
American experts believe that North Korea has at least 50 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium, and if Pyongyang says it has less, this will only fuel Washington's suspicions that it is not coming clean, and it will not remove North Korea from its terrorist blacklist. The principle of reciprocity will not be respected, and North Korea's nuclear disarmament plans, which seemed impeccable only recently, will be called into question.
The United States will have a presidential election in 2008 and needs to settle North Korea's nuclear problem before then. Otherwise all efforts could prove to be in vain.
Moreover, South Korea, which has maintained economic cooperation with Pyongyang for seven years irrespective of political problems, including the nuclear one, will also have a new president next year. Polls show that the conservative opposition's candidate stands the best chance in the Dec. 19 presidential election.
Taken together, this may overturn the situation on the Korean Peninsula, notably North Korea's denuclearization program. Pyongyang will give up its nuclear program only if its security is assured.
(Ivan Zakharchenko is a political commentator for RIA Novosti. The opinions expressed here are his alone and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.)
(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)