DETERMINED to wean the United States from its "South first" policy, North Korea is making a bid for expanded face-to-face talks with its old cold-war adversary.
The Bush administration has insisted that before further steps toward normalization with the communist government in Pyongyang can be taken, North Korea must broaden its dialogue with South Korea and follow through on a 1991 agreement with Seoul to allow mutual inspections of nuclear facilities.
But a North Korean proposal delivered to the White House earlier this month through private channels calls for one-time, three-way talks between North Korea, South Korea, and the US.
Unless current American policy changes, the plan is likely to be rejected. But influential Korea experts outside the government believe such a meeting could help break the logjam over North-South inspections, one of the last sticking points in an otherwise rapidly improving relationship between the two Koreas.
North Korean leaders "are ready to deal on some key North-South issues, but on one of them - nuclear inspections - they want tripartite talks, perhaps as a way of cushioning the impact of making concessions," says William Taylor, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who met in early July with North Korean leader Kim Il Sung and who forwarded President Kim's proposal for tripartite talks to the White House.
"Instead of conditioning regular high-level dialogue with the North on the conclusion of a North-South inspection agreement, the US should resume such a dialogue now and use it to help find a way out of the present inspection impasse," says Selig Harrison, a South Asia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The talks would focus on resolving the impasse between North Korea, which wants the right to inspect all US military bases in the South in return for access by the South to its Yongbyon nuclear facility, and South Korea, which insists that agreement on inspection sites should be on a one-for-one basis.
North Korea also views the talks as a step on the road to an eventual, long-sought peace treaty with the US. The talks could also be a forum for discussing confidence-building measures, including a proposal that North Korea transmit to the US data it has given to officials of a UN agency who are currently inspecting North Korea's nuclear facilities.
Still divided and heavily armed, the Korean peninsula has been slow to feel the effects of the end of the cold war.
Tensions were relaxed when the prime ministers of North and South Korea signed a historic nonaggression and reconciliation pact last December. North Korea later agreed to open its nuclear sites to international inspection - another precondition to normalizing relations with the US.
Bush administration officials have been gratified by Pyongyang's sudden flexibility, which they attribute to varying degrees of economic and political pressure placed on North Korea by the US, South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia.
"We've been surprised and thus far pleased with the amount of cooperation that has been shown by the North Koreans," Assistant Secretary of State Richard Solomon told a congressional committee recently.
But US officials remain adamant that further US-North Korea talks would be counterproductive in the absence of improved North-South dialogue and, in particular, a working North-South nuclear inspection regimen.
Critics of US policy point out that it has been telling North Korea for three years that opening the door to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would clear the way for a serious US-North Korean dialogue. Once it was clear Pyongyang was about to comply, the US moved the goalposts, they say, adding North-South inspections to its list of preconditions.
"The demand for North-South inspections is legitimate, but it should not prevent us from talking," says Dr. Harrison.
By still refusing to talk, the US is weakening the position of North Korean moderates who persuaded Kim to bow to international demands and open North Korea to IAEA inspections, critics say. Behind the administration's hard-line policy is a concern that North Korea may be dragging its feet, using the demand for trilateral talks as a means of buying time to complete the development of a nuclear-weapons program.
It is not that North Korea is likely to use nuclear weapons, US officials say, but that it would sell nuclear-weapons technology, as it has sold medium-range missiles, to renegade states like Syria, Iran, and Libya. US officials also worry that IAEA inspections may be inadequate. The IAEA's performance in Iraq has not inspired confidence in Washington. Ad- ministration officials insist that the only way to be sure that North Korea does not have a secret nuclear weapons program is to allow South Korea to inspect nuclear installations and air bases in the North as part of a reciprocal arrangement.
A third US concern is that North Korea is attempting to split the US-South Korea alliance.
"One thing that worries me is that the North will, in effect, stop where they are, work with us, the international community, [and] work around direct dealing with the South," Solomon told lawmakers. "And this is something we will not support."
North Korea says high-level US participation in nuclear talks is needed because South Korea does not have authority over the US bases in South Korea it wants access to as part of a North-South inspection regime.
Even critics of the Bush administration's hard-line position on three-way talks acknowledge that empowering South Korea to speak for the US in North-South talks would not be a problem.
But they say the demand for tripartite talks, pressed fervently by North Korean military leaders, has mostly to do with face-saving, and that face-saving may be the key to a breakthrough in the North-South dialogue.
North Korea was humiliated when Mikhail Gorbachev bypassed Pyongyang last year en route to the first-ever state visit to Seoul by a Soviet leader. Kim is now worried that a rapprochement between South Korea and China will occur before North Korea's own hoped-for reconciliation with the US and Japan.
Intent on ending North Korea's isolation and gaining a formal peace treaty with the US, Kim is eager to have the US at the bargaining table, analysts say. It will also be easier for Kim to make concessions if a third party is present than in the presence of South Korea alone. The US and North Korea have opened two recent channels of communication. Informal contacts now exist between their embassies in Beijing. In January, US and North Korean officials held their highest level meeting since the Korean War .
Critics of US policy discount the notion that one-time trilateral talks, could weaken US-South Korean ties. "There is absolutely no way they can drive a wedge in US/ROK relations," says Dr. Taylor. "The US commitment to [South Korean] security is firm and unwavering."