WASHINGTON Last fall, the North Koreans took James Kelly aside and admitted to him they had a nuclear program.
This past spring, shortly before a dinner, a Pyongyang diplomat told Kelly his country already had nuclear weapons and might use them.
Life used to be simpler for Kelly, President Bush's top State Department aide for Asia and point man for North Korea. Less than three years ago, he was head of a think tank in balmy Hawaii, enjoying the cool breezes.
This week, for the third time in a little less than 11 months, Kelly, 65, is meeting with chairman Kim Jong Il's envoys to talk about disarmament. The venue is Beijing, where delegates from China, South Korea, Japan and Russia also are present.
And with each Kelly encounter with the North Koreans, the stakes grow higher. He is looking for signs that North Korea will offer to strike a bargain: the verifiable dismantling of its nuclear weapons programs in return for economic benefits and security guarantees.
Kelly's superiors back home are eagerly awaiting his cables on the discussions.
For Secretary of State Colin Powell, it's hard to imagine a more important issue over the short- to medium-term. He said recently that Kelly checks in every day, weekends included, to brief him on what North Korea is up to.
Backslapping camaraderie has not been a hallmark of Kelly's encounters with the North Koreans. Last October, Kang Sok Ju of the North Korean Foreign Ministry acknowledged to Kelly during talks in Pyongyang that his country had a uranium-based nuclear weapons program.
Kelly and his team knew about the program; what surprised them was that Kang acknowledged it.
The implications were serious, given the promises North Korea had made during the early 1990s to foreswear nuclear weapons.
Another bombshell was awaiting Kelly last April in Beijing where he joined with Chinese and North Korean officials for talks.
North Korea's Ri Gun told Kelly before a dinner that Pyongyang had nuclear weapons and would test, export or use them, depending on U.S. actions. Ri's comments, to say the least, were unsettling.
But Ri's presentation during a plenary meeting was somewhat more encouraging. It included an offer for the eventual abandonment of its weapons programs. Powell felt the offer was worth pursuing.
During the run-up to this week's meetings, administration officials debated whether to order Kelly to ignore any efforts by North Koreans to approach him in social settings. Powell ruled that Kelly should hear them out, regardless of the location.
One senior official said Kelly won't have much room for freelancing in Beijing. ''He's been carefully scripted,'' the official said.
In contrast to the previous encounters with the North Koreans, Kelly at least has the knowledge that there will be friendly faces around the negotiating table.
Of the six countries present, only Pyongyang's envoys think that the idea of a nuclear-armed North Korea has merit.
If the North Koreans say yes to disarmament, then comes the daunting challenge of verifying that the secretive nation really means what it says.
A recent report by the International Crisis Group said that if North Korea is left free to proliferate nuclear materials to other countries and to terrorist groups, ''no city in the world would be safe.''
Other countries will be paying close heed as well to developments in Beijing.
Henry Sokolski, who follows North Korea at the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington, said he attended a meeting recently in Geneva with top officials from Iran, another country on the nuclear path.
''After the formal session, they pulled me aside,'' Sokolski wrote. ''The one question the only question they pressed me about was what Washington planned to do about North Korea.''
George Gedda has covered foreign affairs for The Associated Press since 1968.
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