TOKYO - US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will map strategies with Japanese leaders on Tuesday before a new round of North Korea talks that US officials fear will fail to persuade North Korea to surrender its nuclear arms.
United States officials said the North Korean side is saying that a nuclear-free Korean peninsula was the "dying wish" of the late leader Kim Il-sung and this might be a way for the North to explain its decision to return to talks on July 25 after resisting for more than a year.
But officials travelling with Rice in Asia said they have seen no concrete sign the communist state would surrender its nuclear capability -- which US intelligence estimates at more than eight weapons. Many experts doubt this will happen.
"I don't believe that talks will convince the North Koreans to abandon their programme," former Pentagon official Daniel Bluemthal, from the pro-Bush American Enterprise Institute, said.
"Pyongyang's nuclear aspirations go to the core of the regime's raison d'etre -- ensuring its own survival and forcefully unifying the peninsula under its control," the Asia expert wrote in an analysis on the AEI website.
Rice holds talks with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura before flying to Seoul to meet South Korean leaders.
She was in Beijing on Saturday when the North announced its decision to return to six-party talks.
US allies Japan and South Korea are key players in the six-party process, along with China, which hosted three inconclusive rounds in Beijing. Russia also participates.
"The US must make sure that the Chinese and the South Koreans are in the end willing to raise the bar high enough that we are actually dealing with this problem for the last time," Scott Snyder of the Asia Foundation office in Washington said.
But Donald Gregg, former US ambassador to South Korea, said: "The biggest overall problem is trust."
"The two (United States and North Korea) as they sit down will be like people looking at each other from opposite edges of the Grand Canyon."
The United States laid down a negotiating proposal in June 2004 that was quickly denounced by the North. But China and South Korea were also critical, urging the US to outline more and better benefits that would accrue to the North if it abandons its nuclear ambitions.
Although insisting the US would offer no new incentives to bring the North back to the table, Rice and other officials said the proposal was just a starting position and there was room to alter its terms once serious negotiations start.
Some experts question just how much flexibility US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs Christopher Hill will have in negotiations.
A hardline Bush administration faction, including Vice President Dick Cheney, has been viewed as opposed to talks with the North and eager to shape US policy to encourage the regime's collapse.
But Hill is comfortable with the freedom he has been given so far, a US official said.