BEIJING — When the United States, North Korea and four other nations return to the negotiating table Tuesday to resume long-stalled talks on ending the Pyongyang government's nuclear weapons program, it might well be their last chance for a breakthrough.
Three previous rounds of discussions in Beijing dating back to 2003 were heavy on posturing and light on engagement. The last, in June 2004, ended without progress, and it has taken more than a year of intense diplomacy to lure North Korea back to negotiations.
In the meantime, the reclusive communist country has declared unequivocally that it possesses nuclear weapons, deepening international concern about its arsenal. Some officials in Washington began talking about taking the issue to the United Nations Security Council or finding other coercive means to deal with the matter.
So this time, many analysts say, both Pyongyang and Washington sense that much more is at stake. In the run-up to the talks, both have been signaling a willingness to be more flexible.
Success, experts believe, will hinge on two main factors: whether the envoys at the talks can really negotiate, and whether the parties can agree on the order of disarmament steps and rewards for North Korea.
"The question is sequencing," said Bonnie Glaser, senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "What has to be done first? We have to see the political will on both sides."
In the past, Washington has rejected the idea of benefits for North Korea until it dismantles its nuclear program. Pyongyang -- which wants security guarantees, energy assistance and other aid -- has demanded incremental rewards as it takes steps to disarm.
In recent weeks, North Korea has said that denuclearizing the Korean peninsula was the dying wish of the nation's founder, Kim Il Sung. Some analysts see that as a sign that Pyongyang is prepared to compromise.
In another step that several experts saw as positive, North Korea said Friday that one way to end the standoff would be for the U.S. to normalize relations with it and sign a peace treaty to replace the cease-fire that ended the Korean War five decades ago.
"This was clearly North Korea's effort to shape the next round of talks," Glaser said, "not torpedo it."
Paik Hak Soon, a North Korea expert at the Sejong Institute in South Korea, agreed.
"By announcing the importance of the peace treaty, North Korea has already begun the agenda-setting process for the fourth round of the six-party talks," he said. "North Korea is worried that once the U.S. achieves denuclearization, it may not be interested in the peace treaty or the normalization process. They want to remind the United States the discussion of the peace treaty issue is an integral part of the denuclearization process."
Though normalizing relations with North Korea is not out of the question for the U.S., some analysts believe it can't be a starting point for negotiations because Washington isn't convinced that Pyongyang has decided to give up nuclear arms.
"The fundamental question is whether North Korea's decision to return to the table is a strategic decision, that they are prepared to abandon their nuclear program. Or if it's a tactical choice, to put off growing pressure and moves to the U.N. Security Council and seek as many inducements as possible," said L. Gordon Flake, executive director of the Mansfield Foundation in Washington.
"This is most likely a tactical move that will not bear result," he said. "But the door is left open. North Korea may be convinced to pursue the strategic move."
Others, however, believe Pyongyang is committed to dismantlement and that it's up to the U.S. to do more.
The North Koreans "have made a strategic decision," said Selig S. Harrison, director of the Asia Program at the Center for International Policy in Washington. "If the U.S. normalizes relations, they'll give up their nuclear weapons. The problem is we haven't made a strategic decision. The hard-liners in Washington believe North Korea is not willing to give up its nuclear weapons and we ultimately have to force them to."
Regardless, Bush administration officials have curbed their anti-Pyongyang rhetoric recently and repeated pledges that they have no intention of attacking North Korea.
Besides discerning a more cordial tone, observers of the talks say some procedural changes being considered for this round could boost chances of a breakthrough.
Whereas prior sessions have devoted long hours to canned speeches and little time to back-and-forth discussions, the prepared remarks may be curtailed this time. And instead of ending the talks after a set number of days, usually three, some participants in this round have called for an open-ended time frame.