The United States and North Korea will hold more direct talks to try to revive long-stalled nuclear disarmament negotiations, but analysts see little hope of an early breakthrough.
The US State Department said the two sides would meet Monday and Tuesday in Geneva, following up on talks in July in New York, but cautioned that it was premature to consider a resumption of the full six-party nuclear dialogue.
Before any wider talks, the US and ally South Korea insist the North show it is sincere about the process, for example by shutting down a uranium enrichment programme which could be reconfigured to make atomic weapons.
The North insists on six-party talks without preconditions -- a position reiterated by leader Kim Jong-Il in a written interview with Russia's ITAR-Tass news agency.
"The rapid resumption of the six-party talks without preconditions... to implement the joint declaration of September 19 comprehensively, in a balanced manner, based on the principle of synchronised action and in so doing achieving the denuclearisation of the entire Korean peninsula -- that is our unchanged and principled position," Kim said.
The talks grouping the two Koreas, the US, China, Russia and Japan began in 2003.
In September 2005 the North agreed to abandon all nuclear weapons and programmes in return for security guarantees, energy aid, a peace pact formally ending the 1950-53 war and diplomatic ties with the United States.
In 2007 it shut its plutonium-producing Yongbyon reactor. But the following year the process began breaking down amid mutual accusations of bad faith.
In April 2009 the North formally quit the six-party forum, a month before staging its second atomic weapons test. Now it wants to come back unconditionally, while Washington demands a physical sign of sincerity.
"North Korea won't accept it as it believes such a demand constitutes a breach of the 2005 agreement that calls for reciprocal, simultaneous actions," Professor Kim Yeon-Chul, of Busan's Inje University, told AFP.
He said there could be a breakthrough if each party takes simultaneous substantive action. For example, the North could start dismantling nuclear programmes as Washington begins peace talks.
A senior US official said the new round of discussions was not prompted by any new signals from North Korea but out of concern that the absence of dialogue could lead the regime to make "miscalculations".
Seoul accuses its communist neighbour of two border attacks last year which claimed a total of 50 lives.
"As we have seen in the past, sometimes when engagement is broken off, it causes them to lash out in dangerous and unsettling ways," the official said in Washington on condition of anonymity.
"So this is, at this stage, an exploratory phase, and frankly, it's a management strategy."
Victor Cha, a senior adviser on North Korea to former president George W. Bush, said dialogue can ease tensions even if a breakthrough is unlikely.
"North Korea leaves you only with bad and worse options. Avoiding dialogue only promises a runaway nuclear programme and more provocations," said Cha, now a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Georgetown University.
"Dialogue may not get denuclearisation, but it does help to manage the situation, avert a crisis... and possibly offer small victories in freezing elements of the programme."
But Kim Yeon-Chul said US stalling tactics would be unwise.
"Focusing on non-proliferation rather than denuclearisation cannot be an option as the North will continue building up nuclear deterrence and this would only increase the future cost of dismantling its atomic programmes," Kim said.
Yang Moo-Jin, of Seoul's University of North Korean Studies, said the six-party talks would likely resume by early next year following one or two more rounds of US-North Korea talks.
But he also expressed concern that Washington might focus on putting a lid on the issue rather than actively engaging in disarmament negotiations.
"The Obama administration would then face criticism that it is too passive in dealing with the North's nuclear issue and all the onus for handling the North's nuclear programmes would fall on South Korea," Yang said.