SEOUL — DAY after day, for the past two weeks, North Korean and United States negotiators meeting in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur have haggled over a deal to end North Korea's capability to produce nuclear weapons.
The North Koreans have added to their reputation for using unpredictable, inscrutable, and perhaps unfair tactics - reopening issues that the other side says were settled and suddenly introducing new conditions. US officials and their South Korean colleagues have said little or no progress has been made, but promise to continue talking today in spite of what they say are unacceptable North Korean positions.
If North Korea - a small, isolated, and economically decrepit nation - appears to be yanking the United States and South Korea around on a chain, that's because it is. The two countries have little choice but patience.
As one senior South Korean official puts it, North Korea has a very wide "option window." It makes new demands, accuses the other side of bad faith, and insists on renegotiating done deals, he sighs, requesting anonymity.
The US and South Korea, by contrast, have a very narrow window, constrained by their need to finesse a deal that will win approval from the South Korean National Assembly and not offend the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee. If they succumb to exasperation and walk away, and then attempt more coercive measures to make North Korea comply with the global Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), they will find it more difficult than ever to organize concerted international action toward that end.
Government officials, analysts, and politicians interviewed here in recent days all say they believe the deal will reach a successful conclusion, adding after a pause, "eventually."
"Logically speaking," says Cho Se Hyung, an opposition member of the South's National Assembly, "a collapse wouldn't benefit either side." But because the subject involves North Korea, perhaps the most closed nation on earth, he includes a caveat: "History is not always logical."
For several reasons, the diplomacy under way on the North Korean nuclear issue makes for an intriguing spectator sport. The parties are limited and motivated by complex factors, and tracking their moves is like watching chess: It's fascinating if you like strategy.
Here then is a viewer's guide to what many people hope will be the endgame of the North Korean nuclear crisis - assuming logic ultimately prevails.
In late 1992, international inspectors monitoring North Korea's compliance with the NPT began to worry that the country was harboring a secret program to obtain weapons-grade plutonium from its experimental nuclear reactors. Many analysts speculated throughout 1993 and 1994 that the country could build or had built crude nuclear bombs.
Since 1953, North Korea and South Korea have technically remained at war, and the border between them is now the most heavily militarized and one of the most volatile on the planet. Thirty-seven thousand US troops help protect South Korea from the North's million-man military.
The proposed solution:
For much of 1993 and 1994, the US led international efforts to cajole North Korea to allow inspectors access to suspicious sites. Diplomats tried to organize United Nations Security Council sanctions to be applied against the North if inspectors weren't granted access. But because of Chinese resistance to measures that would further isolate North Korea, UN action seemed unlikely. Japan said it would be unwilling to back sanctions without Chinese support.
The sense of percolating crisis was defused in mid-1994 after a meeting between former US President Carter and then-Korean "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung. In spite of Kim's sudden death in July, the US and North Korea concluded an Agreed Framework last October. The North agreed to freeze its nuclear program in exchange for two new reactors to be provided by a US-led international consortium.
These so-called Light Water Reactors (LWRs) are less capable of producing the weapons-grade plutonium than ones the North Koreans were building. The North was also promised improved relations with the US and supplies of oil to meet the country's energy needs until the reactors can be put into operation. Under the deal, North Korea does not have to permit "special inspections" that could determine how far it had gone toward producing a weapon for five or six years, but has allowed inspectors to monitor its main nuclear sites.
The central impediment stalling the framework is a dispute over which country will build the new reactors. The US says it was clearly understood in October that South Korea would do so, but in recent months North Korea has rejected such a role for South Korea, saying Seoul's technology is suspect and insisting on US-made and US-designed nuclear equipment.
Analysts say the North refuses to admit that its enemy is advanced enough to provide the reactors.
South Korea has said it will fund most of the $4 billion to $5 billion project, but only if its companies get the contracts to build the reactors. Japan has agreed to make a lesser, but as yet unspecified, financial contribution.
During the Kuala Lumpur negotiations, North Korea has also called for the consortium to provide additional technical assistance, at an estimated cost of $1 billion, and demanded compensation for abandoning its own nuclear-energy program.
At the same, it has raised military tensions on the Korean Peninsula. It has progressively withdrawn from the UN-sponsored, multinational armistice structure that is supposed to keep the North-South border peaceful, demanding a separate treaty with the US.
North Korean propagandists have also issued attacks on South Korean President Kim that one government official here calls the "most severe in 40 years."
"[South Korean President] Kim Young Sam, who is engaged in the treacheries in South Korea," says one official North Korean English-language missive last month, "is a mucky sycophantic traitor under the 'civilian' mask appointed by the colonial ruling forces for the purpose of continuing intervention and domination over South Korea." The South's officials say the Korean-language versions are unprintably more vitriolic.
The other options:
The problem for the US and South Korea is that there are no good alternatives but to put up with the North and try to make the Agreed Framework succeed.
The US, in particular, is caught between the two Koreas on the issue of the provenance of the LWRs. Because no other country would be likely to spend billions of dollars to build the reactors, the US must convince the North to accept South Korean equipment. "We have some real leverage [with Washington]," says Kil Jeong Woo of Seoul's government-backed Research Institute for National Unification, "because we're paying."
"In some sense," Dr. Kil adds, "this is not a deal between the US and North Korea, it's a deal between Washington and Seoul."
South Korean leaders have insisted that their contractors build the reactors and that their role be formally recognized by the North. "If that condition is not met," says Ha Soon Bong, a legislator of President Kim's ruling party, "it will be very difficult for the Korean National Assembly to pass" a measure authorizing funding for the project.
At the same time, the prospects for international action on the North Korean nuclear issue have grown even more unlikely in recent months. New tension between Washington and China over a proposed visit to the US by Taiwan's leader is only the most recent reason why Beijing would be unlikely to cooperate with the US.
The US and South Korea could try their own sanctions - abandoning warmer ties between North Korea and Washington and canceling some recently approved investments in North Korea - but that would simply return the situation to where it was at the middle of last year.