The US is under pressure to give some concessions upfront for North Korea to fulfill a pledge to abandon its nuclear weapons program, as multilateral talks enter a crucial phase this week.
At the last round of the talks, North Korea pledged to abandon its nuclear weapons arsenal in return for wide-ranging benefits, in the first-ever accord signed by the US, China, the two Koreas, Russia and Japan since six-way negotiations began in August two years ago.
But an important question has cropped up ahead of the fifth round of talks in Beijing, set to begin on Wednesday: Who should make the first move under the so-called "commitment for commitment, action for action" principle they agreed upon?
"I think the next round is unlikely to yield significant progress, because the two sides are very far apart on what each of them should do at the beginning," said Selig Harrison, director of the Asia program at the Washington-based Center for International Policy.
The US wants North Korea to set the ball rolling by launching the process of dismantling its nuclear weapons program.
North Korea, on the other hand, expects substantial benefits upfront from the US before beginning any effort to surrender what is literally its only negotiating weapon.
Harrison believes Pyongyang wants the US to "take some steps" leading to normalized relations, such as North Korea's removal from the US list of states accused of sponsoring terrorism.
Pyongyang does not currently have diplomatic relations with the US.
Removal from the terrorism list is crucial for the impoverished North Korea to join the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank and seek developmental aid.
By waiting for the US to initiate steps towards normalization of relations, North Korea may be testing whether Washington is genuine in its desire to end any bid for regime change in North Korea.
There continues to be a split in the US administration on its policy towards North Korea, diplomatic sources said, adding that this was having a direct impact on the negotiating strategy of the chief US envoy to the six-party talks, Christopher Hill.
For example, Hill was unable to get clearance from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to fly to Pyongyang to talk directly with the top North Korean leadership. A trip, diplomats said, could have underlined US sincerity in wanting to resolve the nuclear crisis.
"The combination of a relatively inflexible and deeply divided foreign policy establishment in Washington and a brutal and difficult ... dictatorship in Pyongyang makes it very hard to imagine that we can proceed ahead without many bumps on the road," said Kurt Campbell, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asian and Pacific affairs.
The US agrees that the process and timetable for denuclearization of the Korean peninsula is going to be difficult.
"The next phase -- working out the details of North Korea's denuclearization, as well as corresponding measures the other parties will take -- will involve tough negotiations," Hill told a congressional hearing recently.
"We will be drawing up timelines and sequencing of actions. The issues are complex and interrelated," he said of the upcoming round of talks.
Joseph DeTrani, the special US envoy to the talks, said North Korea had to resolve the highly emotive issue of its kidnapping of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s before any consideration could be given to its removal from the terrorism list.
But there had been little progress in high-level negotiations in Beijing last week over the abduction issue between Japan and North Korea.
"If there is no progress in the Japanese-North Korean talks, it is not likely there will be any significant progress in the six-party talks, because the US needs the freedom to remove North Korea from the terrorism list as a first gesture in order to get a good North Korean gesture," Harrison said.
But DeTrani indicated some US flexibility in resolving the nuclear crisis, which flared up in October 2002 after Washington accused North Korea of running a secret uranium-enrichment program.
"No one is asking the Koreans to unilaterally dismantle all their programs before anything else happens.