It is the very definition of a "rogue state." Poor, isolated, and bitter, North Korea is considered so dangerous that some US officials want to build a $60 billion missile-defense system to counter its threat.
But recent goodwill gestures by North Korea's government may make carrots as important as sticks in the US arsenal.
What's changing the diplomatic dynamic is a historic summit planned next month between North and South Korea. If successful, it could ease tensions on the peninsula and also bolster the Clinton administration's dovish tack toward the impoverished authoritarian regime.
"I'm reluctant to give the president credit," says Donald Gregg, a Republican who was the US ambassador to South Korea from 1989 to 1993. "But in this case the [administration's approach] is doing quite well."
At the summit, announced early in April, the two sides will probably discuss family visitation between the two countries and agricultural aid for the North. Korea split in 1945, and the two sides remain technically at war after a 1953 armistice.
The move comes as Japan is in strained talks to normalize relations with North Korea. Canada and Australia have exchanged envoys with Pyongyang. And Italy established diplomatic relations in January.
The United States, after sending envoy William Perry in May 1999, is still trying to persuade North Korea to reciprocate by sending a senior delegation to America in coming months. One hold-up: North Korea objects to being on the State Department's list of countries that sponsor terrorism.
During his trip, former Defense Secretary Perry offered North Korea increased - and much needed - aid, if leader Kim Jong Il would curb its nuclear and missile programs.
Perry's trip built on the so-called Agreed Framework of 1994, in which the US, Japan, and South Korea said they would finance energy supplies to North Korea, including two light-water nuclear power reactors, if North Korea gave up its more dangerous nuclear program.
Critics of this approach say the US has fallen into a trap of rewarding Pyongyang when it has done little more than increase tension on the Korean Peninsula, where 35,000 US troops now protect South Korea's border.
The House International Relations Committee passed a measure this month, for instance, that would block nuclear-energy transfers to North Korea if they break international nonproliferation accords.
In 1998, North Korea tested its Taepo Dong ballistic missile, launching it over Japan and setting back efforts to sooth relations with the international community.
Recent events, however, may have turned the balance in favor of the Clinton administration, and its support for South Korean President Kim Dae Jung's policy of engagement. Yet, observers are quick to guard their optimism.
"The symbolism of the meeting is very strong," says Mr. Gregg, head of the Korea Society in New York. "If the summit goes well, there might be some spillover [to US-North Korean relations]."
Missile issues key
At the heart of the debate on how the US should relate to North Korea is the regime's missile program, which is often cited as the primary justification for the US to build a national missile-defense system.
President Clinton can decide to deploy or delay a limited system as early as this summer, and Washington is bitterly divided on the subject. A recent report by the Congressional Budget Office estimates that a full ballistic missile defense could cost $60 billion through the year 2015 - significantly more than the Pentagon has predicted.
The proposal has angered Russia and China, who find it difficult to believe that the US would build such an elaborate system to defend against a country as small and poor as North Korea.
But US officials take the North Korean threat seriously.
Adm. Dennis Blair, commander of the US Pacific Fleet, recently told reporters that he thought North Korea is probably at work on new missiles. Their Taepo Dong-2 intercontinental ballistic missile is thought to be well under way and may eventually be able to reach Hawaii or Alaska.
"They have said that as long as we're continuing this round of talks, they're not ... going to be firing a missile," Admiral Blair noted.
Adding to US concerns, however, are reports that North Korea is selling missiles to other rogue nations, such as Syria and Libya. The North Korean military, which has an estimated 1 million soldiers, produces three missile systems, ranging from Soviet-era Scuds to the Taepo Dong, for which Japan is well within range.
Then there's North Korea's nuclear program. Plutonium production was discovered in 1994, but is supposed to halt under the Agreed Framework. American officials visited a suspected nuclear site once and are in talks to arrange a second visit, according to a State Department official.
Chemical weapons, too
Regardless, the nation is thought to have enough plutonium for one or two warheads, as well as a chemical-weapons stock and a biological-weapons development program.
The upshot: Even if North Korea halts missile tests and plutonium production, Washington must maintain a tough military stance, says William Drennen, a Korea expert at the US Institute for Peace.
"We still don't have a clear sign that there will be an end to hostilities," he says.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society