North Korea failed a US sincerity test.
US officials say they went to North Korea earlier this month carrying evidence of a secret nuclear-weapons program run by Pyongyang. Their goal: to probe whether President Kim Jung Il's recent talk of reform and opening up to the world was real, according to senior Bush administration officials.
Instead, they were met with belligerence. When confronted with the evidence of an enriched-uranium program in violation of a 1994 agreement North Korean officials took a confrontational attitude, and tried to "intimidate us," one official says, speaking off the record.
The administration's plan to test the regime, an official says, came after last month's summit between Japan and North Korea, when President Kim stunned the world by apologizing for the kidnapping of 13 Japanese citizens in the 1970s.
"[Japanese Prime Minister] Koizumi opened the door," the official says, "after Kim apologized to him, and after months of signaling change and reform in Pyongyang, we said, 'If the opening with Koizumi is real, if he wants to reform, we want to give him the chance to acknowledge that he has a weapons program."
Kim acknowledged the weapons program but not willingly. "The North was very belligerent. They wanted to scare us. The main thing for us now is not to overreact," says the US official.
The sudden acknowledgment by the White House Wednesday that the Stalinist North has been developing weapons of mass destruction marks a kind of turning point in North Asia. But in which direction?
Some analysts argue that, even if North Korea was forced by US officials to admit to a secret program, the North now hopes to turn its veracity to an advantage. The North is reportedly anxious to move itself further away from the "axis of evil" status bestowed on it by the Bush administration.
Media reports in South Korea suggest that since Oct. 3, when US Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly visited Pyongyang, North Korean officials have approached the White House with a comprehensive set of proposals for talks, including pulling back the North's massive conventional forces located along the demilitarized zone with South Korea, abandoning its nuclear weapons program, and engaging in economic reform.
When Kim admitted that North Korea had kidnapped Japanese citizens to train its spies in Japanese language and culture, that involved a loss of face by the Korean leader. But it also helped open the door to perhaps as much as $40 million in Japanese aid to the North.
"I think there is a high likelihood that North Korea has no money, no energy, and cannot afford to continue its research program into enriched uranium weapons," says Xing Rui, a research fellow at Tsinghua University in Beijing. "What the North wants now is negotiations with the US. That's what this is about."
Since 1994, the US and North have operated under an accord known as the "Agreed Framework." The treaty was negotiated under the Clinton administration and it required Pyongyang to stop using a graphite nuclear reactor that produced plutonium refined enough to make weapons.
In exchange, the US agreed to help pay for new "light water" reactors which don't produce material for nuclear weapons. They have been under construction in Korea for several years, at Japanese and US expense.
The agreed framework itself came about after tensions on the Korean Peninsula in the early 1990s, when UN inspectors discovered evidence of weapons-grade plutonium in North Korean reactors evidence that North Korean scientists evidently thought could not be detected.
Sources say that US Assistant Secretary Kelly laid out evidence of a uranium weapons program earlier this month and North foreign ministry officials denied it. But a day later, they admitted to a large program. "They told us they had a program, then told us our current agreements meant nothing any more. It was a clear confrontation," says a US official.
How the US deals will handle this admission is unclear. Some analysts argue that Kim has nowhere to turn to except the US, and that, preoccupied with Iraq, the best approach for the US to take is diplomatic.
"The US may have a proposal from the North that would look attractive under more normal circumstances, but since they admitted to cheating, it will be harder for Bush to talk right now," says Paik Jin-Hyun, senior professor at Seoul University. "With Iraq on ... Kim has not chosen an appropriate time to make his pitch."
News of the nuclear program puts a damper on Japan's plans to normalize relations with the North. "Japan is not going to give one dollar until this issue is resolved," says Dr. Paik of Seoul University.
It is also an embarrassing slap to South Korea. Political advisors around President Kim Dae Jung had long implied that a program of weapons of mass destruction in the North was something exaggerated by hawks in the South and the US. Yet the admission of a secret enriched uranium program by the North, only weeks after athletes from the two sides walked hand in hand in the Asian Games, has gone over badly, according to polls taken in Seoul on Thursday. And the North's admission has earned a steely silence from China, reportedly angered by news of the weapons program from a neighbor it has worked hard to keep good relations with and that has a policy of "denuclearization" of the Korean peninsula.
The issue will be high on the agenda for China's President Jiang Zemin and President Bush during next week's summit in Texas. The US president is also likely to discuss Pyongyang's nuclear program at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit later this month.
"My gut feeling is that the Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans are anxiously waiting for the US to talk again with the North," says a senior US official in South Korea. "Some in Washington will say there can be no talks between the North and the US, given the nuclear program we now know about. But you can also logically make the reverse argument, that now is the time to talk."