North Korea's admission of a secret nuclear program has forced the Bush administration to rethink its "unilateralist" approach at least in Asia. Yet the patient "go slow" approach the White House is adopting on North Korea which President Bush termed an "axis of evil" state is not due simply to a preoccupation with Iraq.
Rather, the North Korean question is so sensitive and potentially dangerous, experts say, due to leader Kim Jong Il's assertion early this month that he will nullify an agreement that has kept the Korean peninsula ostensibly nuclear-free for eight years.
Under the "Agreed Framework," as it is known, sealed plutonium fuel rods at the North Korean complex at Yongbyon now are under the eyes and cameras of international inspectors. Those fuel rods could be turned into fissionable material for five nuclear weapons in a matter of months unlike the recently revealed enriched uranium program, which is still two or three years off under the best of circumstances, experts say.
What the Bush administration and regional leaders are anxious about is whether Kim Jong Il actually intends to scotch the Agreed Framework by kicking out the Yongbyon verification team, or whether he will be satisfied to let his announcement of "nullification" stand as a kind of warning threat that leads to negotiations.
"Right now, it is still business as usual. We have not yet seen efforts to expel or restrain [inspectors'] activities," says a senior US official in Asia.
Yet "if Kim should close out the inspectors," says Scott Snyder of the Asia Foundation in Seoul, "that would be an escalatory step. That's why everyone is being very cautious. Right now this is a problem, not a crisis."
In an effort to manage that problem, the White House last week allowed the delivery of heavy oil to North Korea as part of the Agreed Framework.
Agreements on nuclear issues are considered the core of any trust and stability on the Peninsula, and meetings Friday in Texas with Chinese President Jiang Zemin and over the next few days with Japan and South Korea are seen as crucial for the White House. The Bush team must rely heavily on these Asian states to create a pathway out of the dilemma.
The White House itself is hampered by internal disagreements, with some officials feeling that Kim should be further isolated, and others backing negotiations.
"We hope to give the North some time to decide whether it miscalculated," says a senior administration official. "What we will not do is simply bend to Pyongyang. Kim wants money, prestige, and a deeper dialogue with the US. He can have that. We aren't talking about destroying the North or 'regime change.' But this is not the way to do it. You won't see George Bush going to Pyongyang, the way Bill Clinton nearly did."
In recent months, North Korea has renewed dialogue with the South, and has moved dramatically to normalize relations with Japan. Both Japan and South Korea feel that Kim is jockeying for desperately needed cash. Together with China, they are so adamantly opposed to any military solution that the US is not considering it. But the revelation of Pyongyang's secret program has divided opinion further in those countries over how to deal with Kim.
Under the "Sunshine" policies of outgoing President Kim Dae Jung, South Korea insists strictly on a diplomatic solution, rejecting even sanctions on the North. Seoul diplomats returned from a meeting in Pyongyang Wednesday, and President Kim previewed what is expected to be his position at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Mexico this weekend, when he told reporters that dialogue is the only option and that sanctions would allow "a nuclear response" from the North.
Senior Bush officials say the US is "willing to wait" until after South Korea's elections, scheduled for December, to work with a new government in the South that is expected to take a tougher line on the North.
In Pyongyang this week, the North refused to reaffirm in writing the terms of two landmark denuclearization treaties it signed with Seoul in 1992. Those two treaties formed the basis of the Agreed Framework's ban on nuclear activity, many scholars say. The Agreed Framework itself came about when North Korea threatened to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty regime in 1993, after international inspectors found evidence of weapons-grade plutonium in a reactor.
Japan, for its part, plans to conduct talks on normalization with North Korea Oct. 29 at the Japanese Embassy in Malaysia. Tokyo regards the secret nuclear program as a violation of the "Pyongyang Declaration" Japanese President Junichiro Koizumi signed with the North's Kim last month. Japan will tell the North that it will give no aid or compensation until its nuclear program is "verifiably scrapped," a Japanese foreign ministry official says. Japanese funding is considered a chief future lever with the North's leader.
Some Korea watchers say Kim is genuinely trying to gain Washington's attention but his tactics are feeding those who least want talks. "The big challenge is that there may be an unbridgeable gap between where the DPRK [North Korea] is, and where the US government is," says a North Asia expert in Seoul. "The allies are watching and hoping the gap either isn't there, or will just go away."
In recent months, Kim has made several diplomatic mistakes unusual for the North, whose tactics are grudgingly admired by Western strategists. A plan to start a free-trade zone in North Korea was scuttled when China arrested the man pegged by Pyongyang to start the project. Then last month, Kim evidently misjudged public outcry in Japan after apologizing for the North's abduction of 12 citizens (Story page 7).
It may be China, in fact, that has the most capacity to pressure the North. China provides food and fuel to the North directly and indirectly, through a long and porous border allowing for a hearty export of cash and goods to its neighbor. It does not want a nuclear North Korea, nor does it want a rapid collapse of the North that could conceivably bring US support troops to its border. China is especially adamant that Japan not be allowed nuclear weapons, should the North remain stubborn.
"I think after US-China talks, China will deliver a message to Kim," says one US scholar with ties to the US State Department. "That may be the most powerful agreement that comes out of [Chinese President] Jiang's trip to Texas," a summit between the two leaders scheduled for Friday at Bush's ranch.