BEIJING – With embattled North Korea agreeing Tuesday to return to the negotiating table, the U.S. and China confront a surprise second chance to defuse a widening nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula.

The agreement capped seven hours of secret meetings in Beijing, after China enticed North Korean and U.S. envoys to convene face to face. It was a stark measure of China’s pivotal role in the world’s standoff with Pyongyang.

But North Korea’s erratic behavior in the three weeks since its first nuclear test offers little assurance that the resumption of six-nation disarmament talks will lead to a swift solution. And the abrupt announcement, after 13 months of stalled talks, comes amid few signs that the U.S. or North Korea has made a strategic shift on the most divisive issues.

President Bush said he is “very pleased with the progress,” but reaffirmed that the U.S. is determined to achieve “a North Korea that abandons her nuclear weapons programs.”

To resume talks, Pyongyang and Washington finessed a key sticking point: the North softened its contention that nuclear talks could not resume before the U.S. abandoned financial sanctions. And Washington agreed to address those financial penalties as part of broader nuclear negotiations.

U.S. envoy, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, said talks could resume this month or in December, but, hard-bitten by more than three years of failed talks, he did not raise expectations.

“I have not broken out the cigars and champagne quite yet,” Hill said.

North Korea will enter the new talks both emboldened and isolated. Its nuclear test Oct. 9 forced the world to acknowledge the progress of Pyongyang’s atomic program, but the move also triggered unprecedented punitive measures from the United Nations and China to abandon the weapons program.

Indeed, on the same day that Pyongyang agreed to talks, it also heightened warnings to South Korea against participating in U.S.-led patrols aimed at intercepting North Korean ships suspected of carrying weapons of mass destruction. Pyongyang’s official news agency reportedly said such involvement would lead to “catastrophic consequences.” Days earlier, Pyongyang also launched five short-range missiles during a military exercise, South Korean media reported Monday.

The six-party talks have been stalled since last November, when the last round brought no progress toward implementing a September 2005 agreement in which the North pledged to abandon its nuclear program in exchange for security guarantees and aid.

Shortly after that agreement, the North requested a nuclear-powered reactor before it would disarm, a demand that effectively stalled any further progress. Later, the North vowed not to return until the U.S. abandoned its campaign to prevent counterfeiting and money laundering that could be used to sell weapons of mass destruction. Those lines in the sand have not changed.

“I think they remain on pretty much the same tack,” said Daniel Pinkston, a North Korea expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. “They have been pretty clear about what they want – they want to be secure, and they realize that nuclear benefits have tremendous benefits and costs.”

What has changed is the level of pressure from the U.N. and China. The Security Council voted unanimously Oct. 14 to impose sanctions on Pyongyang, including a ban on major weapons shipments and restrictions on sales of luxury goods. Importantly, that vote included the support of China, which had previously avoided tough treatment of its fragile neighbor.

With China increasingly frustrated, analysts say Beijing’s willingness to push North Korea beyond simply returning to the table could shape the upcoming talk.

“China is the key element here,” said Derek Mitchell, an East Asia expert at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The thing China really wanted was to resume the negotiation process, and the degree that China actually wants a solution is going to be tested.”

China had savored the diplomatic spotlight that six-party talks provided and was embarrassed by their failure. In July, North Korea also flouted Beijing’s warnings not to test ballistic missiles.

As the nuclear crisis deepened, China turned to a careful mix of private and public pressure to bring Pyongyang back to the table. Last month, China’s envoy, State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan, visited Pyongyang and South Korean media reported that the North Korean leader offered to resume nuclear talks under certain conditions, though China never confirmed that.

Last week, the Chinese government also contacted the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and proposed a trilateral meeting involving North Korea, the United States and China, according to the Washington Post. Hill cut short a visit to the South Pacific to slip into Beijing on an unannounced visit, where he met with Kim Gye Gwan, the North Korean vice foreign minister, the Post reported.

China also may have tugged on North Korea’s economic lifeline. China cut off oil shipments to North Korea in September, though in keeping with its low-key style, China did not announce the oil stoppage but included the move in routine customs statistics. It publicly explained that the move – which reduced shipments to North Korea by 7 percent compared to 2005 – was tied to heightened domestic demand and the need to build up strategic reserves.

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