And so it was with that need in mind that negotiators from six countries--the United States, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia--sat down Tuesday at the Korean border truce village of Panmunjom to discuss energy aid that the North will receive if it fulfills its promise to identify and dismantle its nuclear facilities and supplies.
The talks this week may provide a further test of Pyongyang's willingness to deal pragmatically with the other five countries in order to secure energy help, as well as the political and security benefits it would be owed if it denuclearizes under a February agreement.
Full six-party negotiations will resume in September, possibly followed by a first-ever meeting on the North Korean nuclear issue with foreign ministers, including U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Even though the North Koreans face cold homes and offices, food shortages, and idled factories due to their energy crisis, few observers believe that the path to fulfilling the agreement will be straightforward. Future talks will encounter "obstacles and pitfalls," Chun Yung Woo, South Korea's nuclear envoy, predicted on Tuesday.
Last month, after a lengthy delay over a separate financial dispute, North Korea shut down its Yongbyon nuclear reactor complex. The reactor freeze was verified by inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency. The move was a breakthrough, but confidence about what comes next is in short supply.
Some analysts expect trouble in the next phase of implementing the deal, when North Korea is supposed to formally list all of its nuclear facilities and supplies and verifiably "disable" them. The worry is not only about possible concealment of some of its plutonium but also about any equipment it possesses for the enrichment of uranium--a separate path to the atomic bomb. North Korea denies the U.S. claim that it has some kind of uranium program.
The North is also demanding that the United States take parallel steps, such as removing North Korea from Washington's list of state sponsors of terrorism, as part of ending a "hostile" policy toward Pyongyang.
Even on the energy front, though, things are likely to be complicated. North Korea has received the first tranche of heavy fuel oil under the agreement--50,000 tons. But it lacks the storage capacity to rapidly take the additional planned 950,000 tons it gets if it completes the deal. Further, only some of the nation's power plants burn the heavy fuel oil.
The energy crisis has slashed the North's electricity output and silenced both industrial plants and agricultural facilities, including producers of fertilizer. That has worsened hunger among North Koreans.
The shortages date to political shifts in Russia and China. "The loss of subsidized petroleum supplies from China and Russia since the end of the Cold War has led to continuing economic paralysis," according to a report this year by the Korea Energy Economics Institute and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
The negotiators are likely to focus on ways of providing equivalent aid, such as refurbishing its power-generation plants, supplying generators for key industrial facilities, and other energy deals. North Korea relies mostly on coal, but it lacks the infrastructure and energy to mine and transport it effectively.
The lead U.S. negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, has said the Bush administration is interested in helping ease North Korea's economic and energy problems as part of the denuclearization deal. The administration is "prepared to move quickly," as one State Department official said.
Noth Korean leader Kim Jong Il has been visiting several of his military bases in recent days. The reasons are unclear, but one possibility is that he is preparing his military backers for painful compromise--that halting the North's nuclear ambitions is the only way to haul the country out of its power-starved poverty.
Still, hard experience with North Korea breeds caution. "We're trying to take things a step at a time," the State Department official said. Such patience is likely to prove a necessity as the talks proceed.
By Thomas Omestad