Clear script eludes key players in crisis with N. Korea

Ministers from both North and South Korea are scheduled to meet in Seoul.

Despite three weeks of intense diplomacy, the crisis over North Korea's threats to restart its nuclear and missile programs still resembles a play with an unfinished script and incomplete auditions.

Key nations in the region are pushing the US to talk directly with Pyongyang. But the US, as National Security Council chief Condoleezza Rice stated Sunday, sees the North's nuclear threat as a shared international problem, not a crisis "between the US and North Korea."

In recent days, the North's invective has lessened. White House officials now regularly mention deal-sweeteners like aid, energy, and security, if the North dismantles its weapons of mass destruction capability. But the nitty-gritty of a deal is still far away, say sources here.

"We are still in the middle of figuring out whether there is a process, and who the players are," says Scott Snyder of the Asia Foundation. "The circles don't intersect yet."

President-elect Roh Moo-hyun of South Korea told a US business group that what's needed is a US-led dialogue that would reshape North Korea's troubled relationship with the world. North and South ministers meet Tuesday in Seoul; the South will start by asking Pyongyang to honor pledges not to develop nuclear capability.

Yet the Bush team remains uneasy with appearing to reward the North's negative behavior. Sources say the language Mr. Roh offered US envoy James Kelly, stressing dialogue and concessions, "was dead on arrival."

If anything is becoming clearer in international circles, it is the broad themes of the North's gambit - a crisis that escalated more quickly than officials anticipated.

At its most basic level, the question to be worked out is whether North Korea will continue as a rogue state or join the international order, analysts say. "In an odd way, the North is asking, are there any benefits to joining the world, or is it better for us to stay outside?" says one Seoul-based expert on the North.

The future of the deteriorating Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) regime is also under scrutiny. India and Pakistan tested nuclear devices outside the NPT in 1998. The US managed to keep North Korea in the NPT by brokering a deal in 1993 to build nuclear reactors that would not process weapons-grade plutonium. What the US now wants, according to US Secretary of State Colin Powell, is an agreement that allows for tougher verification and disavowal of a nuclear option.

Closely related to an affirmative outcome to the Korean crisis is Asian stability - a solution that prevents an arms race among Japan, China, South Korea, and possibly Taiwan.

After the North's admission in October of a secret nuclear program, the US and its allies said it violated two treaties Kim has signed, and stopped shipping oil and food. Kim then kicked out International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors from his Yongbyong nuclear facility, withdrew from the Nonproliferation Treaty, and threatened to hold long-range missile tests.

North Korea last week decisively brushed aside a US offer for very limited talks. But Kim Jong Il clearly wants a major dialogue with Washington - and soon, reportedly before an outcome to the US-led Iraq campaign. The North also appears to be focusing on a deal where Washington would give the North access to international financial institutions. North Korea's economy and infrastructure are widely reported to be decimated; the state operates at one-fortieth the capacity of South Korea, and food is scarce.

Washington has stated that oil, aid, and economic development are possible, should the North see its way to a major disarming of its weapons programs.

Still, the actual working out of method and lead players is problematic. Washington and Pyongyang "are still talking past each other," says Maurice Strong, envoy from UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who was in Pyongyang last weekend. "There is a serious and ominous risk that this crisis could escalate.... The North Koreans are saying they want to resolve it peacefully ... but are determined to go to war if that is required."

But the North's status as an isolated state with nuclear ability and superb negotiators - and a place that sees itself in a life and death struggle for survival -- does not allow for quick solutions.

There are no well-oiled regional bodies to take this up, like NATO or the European Union. There is the UN Security Council, but in the 1993 crisis over North Korea's nuclear ambition, the Council handed the ball to the US.

To be sure, there is plenty of activity. The Chinese have offered mediation. The Russians have put forward a proposal, as have the Japanese. Australian delegates visited Pyongyang last week, sending signals that Washington is ready to talk when the North abandons its programs.

But "talks" could mean discussions about further talks, or talks only about disarmament.

North Korea continues to push for a deal that guarantees the US won't attack, and offers the North access to international funds. The US continues to say that the North must first disarm.

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