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Cautious Start To U.S.-North Korea Talks

North Korea flag, atom, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il
AP / CBS
American and North Korean negotiators took cautious steps Wednesday toward resolving a standoff over the North's suspected nuclear weapons program, ending six months of verbal sparring that pushed tensions on the Korean Peninsula to their highest level in years.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly would not answer reporters' questions after a first day of talks with North Korean and Chinese diplomats, saying only, "No words today, thank you."

In Washington, Secretary of State Colin Powell said no proposals would be made during the meetings, which continue through Friday.

"In this first set of meetings, nothing is being put on the table," Powell told CBS News. "We'll begin a set of discussions. They will hear what we think about the situation.

"They will hear our strong views. We expect the North Koreans to present their views strongly and we certainly expect the Chinese to present their views strongly."

The talks were held out of the media's eye behind the well-guarded walls of a diplomatic compound, reports CBS News Correspondent Barry Petersen. — And while expectations for this first round of meetings are low, the very fact that talks have started is considered a hopeful sign that diplomacy may end the crisis that started last October when the North admitted it had restarted its nuclear weapons program.

The North wants economic aid, and a promise the U.S. will not attack, while the U.S. is demanding an end to the North's nuclear program.

But that's where it could end, because the North seems increasingly unwilling to surrender what it sees as its only bargaining chip – a potential nuclear arsenal.

The North now says only a nuclear deterrent can fend off what it calls ultra-modern weapons, the kind the U.S. used so effectively in the war in Iraq. So the success of U.S. military might in Iraq — could actually make the talks here tougher, with North Korea a lot less willing to compromise.

"They will probably go on and on about their right to have a nuclear program, the need for deterrence against the hostile United States," said former State Department official Wendy Sherman.

If diplomacy fails, America could attack the North's nuclear facilities; plans for such a strike are reportedly being made now. But that could trigger a full-scale war, much like what the U.S. just finished in Iraq.

The war was carefully watched by North's reclusive leader, Kim Jong Il, who showed up on North Korean TV this week, after being out of sight for more than two months.

American military experts say his main focus is regime survival, and one reason he's finally ready to talk with the U.S. could be a desire not to end up like Saddam Hussein – the target of an American bunker buster.