Why US is reacting quietly to N. Korea's provocations

Administration hopes lack of response to hostile acts will force others in the region to shoulder responsibility.

As North Korea ratchets up its "pay attention to me" campaign with the United States, America's Asian partners and some domestic critics express deepening concern that the US is ignoring a brewing crisis.

But the Bush administration is acting more by design than its response to North Korea's provocations might indicate.

By appearing to disregard a series of ever-escalating actions by Pyongyang, the US may hope to alarm its allies and partners in the region to become more involved themselves in the North Korean problem. That would help bridge the gap between those who want the US to enter direct talks with the North - something the US wants to avoid - and the US view that Seoul, Beijing, and Tokyo must be part of any resolution.

The downside of such a strategy, some experts say, is that if addressing North Korea's nuclear program is put off until some point after a US-led war on Iraq, the world could find itself with a rogue nuclear power producing a nuclear bomb or two per month by this summer.

"The problem with the idea of using the increasing provocations to put pressure on other countries in the region is it doesn't address North Korea's view of this," says Corey Hinderstein, assistant director of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington. "For them this is a problem they have with the US, and so there are few ways pressure from others in the region could have an impact."

Acts of hostility

The most recent provocation occurred Saturday, when a North Korean fighter jet flew within 50 feet of an American spy plane on a mission in international airspace over the Korean Peninsula. That incident follows the North's recent restarting of a plutonium-producing plant at Yong byong, resumption of some activity at a spent-fuel reprocessing plant, and testing of a short-range missile.

The calibrated actions have come regularly over recent months as the US has stuck to a two-pronged policy that leaves little room for dialogue: that the US won't be blackmailed by North Korea's threats, and that it won't undertake any discussions with the North until it has dismantled its restarted nuclear program.

The Bush administration, focused on a war with Iraq that could commence by the end of the month, is downplaying the North's actions, indicating no military action will be taken in response to the provocations - at least for now.

But the disappointing results of Secretary of State Colin Powell's recent swing through northeast Asia - during which regional leaders continued to implore the administration to enter direct talks with the North - appear to have strengthened the forces within the administration that favor a cold shoulder approach to Pyongyang.

Policy of disregarding N. Korea

Some policymakers favor "ignoring" the North until it actually starts reprocessing spent radioactive fuel as a way to increase pressure from the region. Other experts believe the US should go as far as to signal the North that it is prepared to support both Japan and South Korea if they decide to build nuclear weapons of their own as a defensive measure.

The danger is that, while the US follows its "no blackmail" approach, North Korea's Kim Jong Il responds by raising the ante as he can.

"Kim has to keep ratcheting up the risk factor, he believes, to pressure the US into the direct talks that would be a political and diplomatic coup for him," says Fritz Ermarth, director of national security programs at the Nixon Center in Washington.

Ms. Hinderstein says a game of chicken with North Korea could lead to "more alarming actions" by Pyongyang.

"The most provocative thing the North could do next would be testing a long-range missile," she says, or announcing that fuel reprocessing at Yongbyong had actually begun.

Given the pattern set over recent months, "Either of those could happen" in the coming weeks, she says.

Missile test may make US take notice

The US presumably would be especially alarmed by a long-range missile test, since the North revealed recently that it has a missile capable of reaching the US West Coast.

Mr. Ermarth says China is probably the biggest stumbling block among countries in the region because it continues to waiver between its interests in the conflict. "China fears what Kim is doing, but they also want to keep the influence they have with the North," he says.

But experts like Ermarth and Hinderstein say the North Korean issue will have to have a multilateral resolution eventually because an end to North Korea's nuclear program will require international verification.

"You don't resolve this," Ermarth says, "outside the international context."

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