THE United States is making a point of moving slowly and carefully as it edges toward confrontation with North Korea over its refusal to allow full international inspections of its declared nuclear sites.
The US does not want to suddenly back the unpredictable North Koreans into a corner. It also wants to convince Asian nations - particularly China - that all chance of talking has been exhausted before pressing for stronger measures like United Nations economic sanctions.
The US has been trying to coax North Korea back into the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty inspection regime ``not through the threat of war but rather through patience and diplomacy,'' said Undersecretary of State Lynn Davis on Tuesday. This approach offers to North Korea ``the path of opening up, removing its isolation, beginning a dialogue with the rest of the world, including the United States.''
Restraint can be seen in the fact that Patriot missiles now set to be sent to South Korea in a show of military resolve will go by boat, taking over a month to arrive and providing ample time for diplomatic jawboning.
The International Atomic Energy Agency voted this week to censure North Korea for blocking inspectors' access to a suspected plutonium-producing site. The IAEA bucked the dispute up to the UN Security Council. Yet UN diplomats said the council isn't yet thinking about punitive actions. The fact that North Korea's intransigence was being considered at this level should give Pyongyang pause, said Jean-Bernard Merimee, French ambassador to the UN. ``We're not thinking in terms of sanctions.''
The US and its allies know caution is necessary, if there's a chance China will back actions against its neighbor and former ally. As a Security Council member, China could veto action against North Korea. Even if it abstained, China could cripple economic strictures by continuing to provide vital oil supplies to North Korea.
Chinese officials say they're not in favor of economic pressure. US officials maintain, though, that China will back measures against Pyongyang - if the US can prove it went the extra mile with diplomacy before calling for action.
The fact that China has said it favors a denuclearized Korean peninsula is evidence US officials cite. Another is that they've consulted with China over the North Korean problem recently, even as US-China relations on another level turned sour.
Chinese officials recommended patient diplomatic steps, which is what the US thinks it's been doing. ``We have essentially approached this in the way they think is the right way,'' Davis insisted.
In the US, some critics hit the administration for moving too slowly. Congressional critics, in particular, are urging timely bolstering of US forces on the Korean peninsula, perhaps through more troops. But no credible voice urges a preemptive strike against suspected nuclear-weapons targets. This would be highly unlikely to be successful and would probably light off a full-scale Korean war.
US choices range from shows of defensive resolve to diplomacy. ``Our options about what to do are severely restricted,'' said Regina Karp, an international-affairs professor at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. A year of back and forth may reveal that North Korea is just playing for time as it develops its nuclear arsenal. ``If they really want the bomb ... they may no longer respond to incentives,'' she says.
Others argue the US hasn't moved fast enough to dangle meaningful inducements the North Koreans will find attractive, like political recognition or easing a de facto international economic embargo in place.
``There's a lot of chest-thumping and posturing going on now,'' says Peter Hays, a Korea expert at Nautilus Pacific Research.
``But when the smoke clears, they'll have to sit down and talk to each other,'' he said.
Chest-thumping reached new levels yesterday, however, as North Korea claimed the missile deployment was pushing the peninsula toward war. In Beijing, North Korea's ambassador to China, Chu Chang Jun, said: ``The American side should not forget the historical experience from the Korean War of the 1950s and should use it as a lesson.''