The U.S. delegation to the talks will be without a top North Korea expert who quit his post after coming under fire from conservatives for taking too soft a line toward Pyongyang, The New York Times reports.
Vice Foreign Minister Kim Yong Il smiled and waved at a throng of about 100 reporters but made no comments as he arrived at Beijing's Capital International Airport. He strode to a waiting limousine and was driven away.
Diplomats from the United States, South Korea, Japan and Russia arrived Monday and were meeting informally Tuesday. Formal talks were scheduled for Wednesday through Friday.
Lee Soo-hyuck, the main South Korean delegate, called the discussions "very fruitful."
The countries are trying to resolve a dispute over North Korea's vows to restart its nuclear weapons program and the United States' insistence that Pyongyang abandon it.
The dispute began last year when North Korea told a U.S. envoy it was trying to process uranium. The U.S. cut off fuel shipments, and North Korea kicked out international inspectors and said it would ignore the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
The North vowed to restart a dormant plant for processing spent fuel rods into plutonium. Pyongyang is already believed to have one or two nuclear devices and could produce five to six more in a few months.
The North has given several rationales for resuming nuclear development. It says it needs nuclear weapons to allow it to defend itself while reducing its million-man conventional army. The North also claims to feel threatened by the U.S. doctrine of preemptive war.
On Saturday, North Korea said it would not relinquish its "nuclear deterrent" unless the United States ends its "hostile policy." It also denounced ongoing routine U.S.-South Korean military drills as "war provocation moves."
The participants in the talks agree that that a nuclear-armed North Korea could upset the delicate balance of power in Asia. But they remain divided over just how much of a threat it would pose to the rest of the world.
Many South Koreans, who are in close range of the North's massive arsenal, have grown immune to the potential threat. Japanese fear a North Korean nuclear-armed missile strike. China and Russia worry about the North but also about U.S. influence in the region.
U.S. officials believe North Korea could align itself with terrorists. Pyongyang earns badly needed hard currency from weapons sales and illicit drug deals.
However, North Korea hasn't been implicated in terrorist activities since 1987, when North Korean agents put bombs aboard a South Korean airliner that crashed near Myanmar, killing all 115 people on board. U.S. officials say the isolated regime continues to harbor Japanese ultra-leftists accused of hijacking a Japanese airliner in the 1970s.
U.S. officials are concerned that Pyongyang will sell weapons or nuclear materials to terrorist organizations. But some experts say that's unlikely.
"Transferring nuclear weapons or to a lesser degree biological or chemical weapons to a terrorist group…would only give the U.S. an excuse to attack," said Timothy Savage, a security analyst and visiting fellow at Kyungnam University's Institute for Far East Studies in Seoul. "I think the possibility of that is extremely low."
Even American officials are split over how to deal with North Korea. Jack Pritchard, the State Department's special envoy in talks with North Korea, resigned Friday after being criticized for taking too soft a line toward the North.
Pritchard, a veteran of the Clinton administration, favors giving North Korea incentives to drop its nuclear pursuit. That clashes with the hard-line approach advocated by counter-proliferation chief John Bolton.
Last month, Bolton called North Korean leader Kim Jong Il a "tyrannical dictator." North Koreas state media called Bolton "human scum."
Pritchard reportedly characterized Bolton's comments as merely his personal opinions. Sen. John Kyl, R.-Ariz., wrote to the State Department complaining about Pritchard's remark.
Pritchard says he never characterized Bolton's speech that way, and did not say why he quit.