Nuclear disarmament negotiators readied for more sparring with North Korea on Tuesday, with talks seeking to narrow distrust and settle rules allowing inspectors to probe the North's atomic activities.
North Korea partly disabled its Yongbyon nuclear facility this year as part of a disarmament-for-aid deal, but the six-party negotiations have so far failed to agree on a protocol to verify the North's declaration of nuclear activities and move disarmament forward.
After years of stop-start negotiations, some sort of progress would be a welcome diplomatic trophy for the outgoing U.S. President George W Bush, only weeks before he gives way to President-elect Barack Obama.
But envoys gathered in Beijing have been wary of fanning hopes of a verification deal this time. Some analysts believe Pyongyang will tread water until it can test the intentions of Obama.
Further complicating the talks are sour relations between North and South Korea, and a feud between Pyongyang and Tokyo over the kidnapping of Japanese nationals decades ago. The North has said it will not recognise Japan's role in the talks.
"The key issue really is how much control over its nuclear plans North Korea is willing to give away," said Zhang Liangui, an expert on the issue at the Central Party School in Beijing, a top Communist Party think tank.
"I don't think the United States' bottom line on verification will change under President Obama, so the key is North Korea's bottom line.... North Korea doesn't want to give away an inch on this without making it a hard-won deal."
The chief US negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, said he hoped the talks, which started on Monday, would nonetheless settle verification rules and a schedule for North Korea to finish disabling Yongbyon in return for shipments of energy aid.
"I mean, we've come here with three goals in mind. To complete the verification protocol is very important," Hill told reporters before heading to the second day of talks on Tuesday.
"It's been waiting six months. We also want to complete the schedule of energy, schedule of disablement."
Japan's negotiator, Akitaka Saiki, warned that serious disputes still divided North Korea from the other five parties.
"I cannot deny that there is a major gap between North Korea and the other five countries on how verification should proceed," Saiki said after the talks on Monday, Kyodo news agency reported.
The talks bring together North and South Korea, China, the United States, Japan and Russia.
North Korea held its first atomic test explosion in 2006 and since then the talks, begun in 2003, have been fitful. The most recent contention has centred on the North's reluctance to allow international inspectors to take nuclear samples out of the country for testing.
Talks host China had been put in charge of drafting a document to spell out how to check North Korea's nuclear declaration, US envoy Hill said on Monday.
He said the talks were set to last three days, but China has not announced a firm finishing date.