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Despite talk of diplomacy, US-N. Korea standoff hardens

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Seeking to address its thorniest Asian problem - the specter of a Korean peninsula studded with North Korean nukes - the White House has quietly achieved what months ago seemed impossible: a broad agreement among Asian states to lock elbows diplomatically and face the isolated regime of Kim Jong Il.

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But North Korea has also done what had previously seemed impossible. Over the past six weeks, the Stalinist state has quietly glided past a "red line" no one imagined even six months ago, essentially now declaring itself to be a nuclear-weapons state.

At all three points of official contact between the US and North Korea since October - the most recent being a congressional delegation to Pyongyang June 1 - the North has stated it has active nuclear programs that can be used to create weapons of mass destruction.

It has also been vague about its willingness to participate in future meetings in multinational settings, something the White House requires. In an unusual break with tradition, Washington is hoping Beijing can persuade Kim Jong Il to meet in a follow-up to talks between the US, China, and the North in April.

Still, as a senior Asian diplomat here says, "I find it hard to visualize how North Korea can come up with a plan, and agree to back down, at a table with five or six other representatives. The US and North Korea are going to have to talk face to face at some point. China's role is now crucial, if not the key to avoiding larger problems later."

In the past month, the White House has shored up its own position. In one-on-one meetings with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, and new Chinese President Hu Jintao, the White House has sold its long-held view that only through a united front can diplomacy succeed against Mr. Kim's expertise in driving wedges between allies, sources say.

Despite divisions in US ranks over how to treat with North Korea - between hard-liners and super-hard-liners, as one analyst describes it - the White House for now is willing to apply a combination of carrots and sticks to test the possibility of getting Kim Jong Il to abandon his nuclear goals. Later this week in Honolulu, American, Japanese, and South Korean officials will meet to refine this approach - including discussion of how to "dry out" the North's cash flow through efforts to stop its drug and counterfeiting trades, as the senior Asian diplomat puts it.

Still, many longtime Korea hands and Asian officials worry that, despite talk of diplomacy, North Korea and the US remain on a dangerous and unpredictable path. The North's latest tactic of declaring nuclear status, even if proved to be a bluff, is especially troubling, since it paints the regime more deeply into a corner. North Korea's main desire is survival of the Kim regime, yet the open push toward nuclear weapons is giving ammunition to hard-liners in the US and elsewhere who desire "regime change" in Pyongyang.

Well-placed sources point out that the North in recent weeks has been alienating many of the strong supporters it used to have in China and Russia. Wang Yi, for example, long a formidable presence in the Chinese foreign-policy structure who sided with the North, has reportedly backed away from his old position.

"China has been gradually adopting the idea that only multilateral talks can solve this dispute," argues Zhang Liangui, a professor at the Communist Party School in Beijing. "The North has publicly declared it owns nuclear capability in the [Beijing] trilateral talks, and this is something that bears on China's national interest as well."

During the three-way talks in Beijing, a North Korean diplomat stated with Chinese officials present that the North is reprocessing plutonium fuel rods that had long been under observation by UN inspectors. North officials also said in the meeting, and repeated last week to the delegation headed by Rep. Curt Weldon (R) of Pennsylvania, that even if it achieves a diplomatic deal, it wishes to keep some weapons-grade material.

Since October, North Korea's nuclear aims have flummoxed US diplomats and Asian leaders. The US and the North have been at loggerheads, while Kim Jong Il has steadily adopted a nuclear posture by kicking out UN inspectors, unsealing 8,000 plutonium fuel rods, and conducting a steady drumbeat of threats. The resulting crisis is the worst in Korea since the early 1990s, and has started a new military rhetoric of self-defense in Japan, caused a sharp trade and investment decline in South Korea, and created a vexing challenge to US leadership and security roles in the north Pacific.

In addition, it comes as the US conducts a global force realignment that has high significance for Asia, and Korea in particular. The Pentagon is moving rapidly to shut down some two dozen small bases along the demilitarized zone established after the Korean War. The US troop presence is likely to be smaller and to be concentrated in two "hubs" at Osan and Taegu, below the Han River. The changes are in keeping with the flexibility and rapid reaction strategy favored by the Pentagon; US military officials use a football metaphor, saying they would much prefer to act as a linebacker moving up and down the DMZ in case of an attack. The move is sensitive in both Koreas, since Seoul desired changes only after the nuclear issue was resolved, and experts say Pyongyang could interpret the changes as a prelude to US punitive attacks should diplomacy fail.

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