As North Korea's Kim Jong Il moves to create a nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula, South Korea is - by default - taking the lead this week as diplomatic firefighter.
In recent days, President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell have ruled out both a US military strike and tougher economic sanctions, yet remain firm in rejecting direct negotiations with Pyongyang.
With the US taking a hard line, and Asian partners largely at odds, current options for a quick and simple solution seem bleak. That leaves South Korea scrambling for help from China, Russia, and Japan. Thursday, North Korea's chief economic ally, China, agreed to use diplomatic means to defuse the crisis - without giving specifics. Today, South Korea will send an envoy to urge Moscow to use its recently resurrected ties to Pyongyang to persuade it to back down.
"We are in the next phase of this crisis now," argues Scott Snyder of the Asia Foundation in Seoul. "What Washington really needs is time - time to consider a plan, time to work with the incoming government in Seoul. They also need the North to step back and give the US some room to talk with them directly. They need the North to say something like, 'we won't start up our experimental reactor, we have found another source of electricity.' "
The Bush administration won't submit to North Korea's game of nuclear blackmail, insisting that, unlike a military strategy toward Iraq, diplomacy is the best way to persuade the North not to develop as many as four to six nuclear weapons in the coming year. Tuesday, the North said it would withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty - the same threat that 10 years ago forced the US to consider military action in Korea.
In the past month, the isolated, cash-poor Stalinist state of North Korea - ruled by a crafty and eccentric leader who is revered as a god and who has used his nuclear program as a bargaining chip - has suddenly come to international stage center. Last week, the North expelled UN nuclear inspectors after 10 years there, opened the seals of containers that house some 8,000 spent plutonium fuel rods, and moved to restart a five-megawatt reactor that the Clinton White House once considered bombing. Kicking out international observers has long been viewed by the US as a "red line" that North Korea could not cross without major repercussions - since it means the plutonium can no longer be accounted for.
While states in Asia desire a peaceful settlement with North Korea, just what an effective diplomatic solution with that country will look like is vexingly unclear, experts say. Several days ago, for example, the US seemed to initiate a policy of economic sanctions and "tailored containment" toward the North. Yet after South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and incoming President Roh Moo- hyun issued a sharp public disagreement with Washington, it seem that even the Bush team is backing off that plan.
Clarity on the diplomatic path out of this crisis may emerge in the coming week. On Monday, nuclear inspectors gather for an emergency meeting with the UN International Atomic Energy Agency board (IAEA). That is likely to be followed by a UN Security Council meeting, and meetings in Washington between US, Japan, and South Korean officials. After that, US envoy James Kelly is scheduled to depart for South Korea.
Currently, North Korea wants to talk only with Washington. South Korea, ironically, wants to talk only with North Korea, to restart its "sunshine policy" of engagement. And the US, meanwhile, wants to talk with the North only through a third party in Seoul.
Washington sources say President Bush began to rule out a military solution after talking with South Korean President Kim about the damage the North's conventional artillery and missiles could wreak on the capital of Seoul, only 30 miles from the demilitarized zone that have separated the sibling nations since 1954.
Yesterday, diplomats from South Korea and China met in Beijing and vowed to find a peaceful solution. Those two states are least likely to favor sanctions and isolation advocated by the Bush team to force the North to stop its various weapons programs, which include biological and chemical weapons, and advanced missile delivery systems.
For reasons of history, geography, and current military ties, China has been looked to as a leading influence on Pyongyang. Chinese attitudes with the North are currently quite ambivalent. But, as with South Korea, China does not want North Korea to collapse or implode quickly - something that would send millions of refugees to China, and destabilize the peninsula.
Moreover, ties between China and the US are relatively warm, following outgoing top leader President Jiang Zemin's trip to Crawford, Texas this fall.
Yet China has played its role with extreme caution, not prodding or offending Pyongyang in any significant way. "Everyone points to the Chinese as holding the main leverage," says James Mulvenon of Rand, a nonprofit research group in Washington. "The Chinese now say they want to help us, but every time we need it, they can't, for one reason or another, provide it.
"I think it is wrong to expect the Chinese will enforce sanctions, that is not how they do business. The best thing the Chinese can do for us is, when the North Koreans come to them for aid and succor, they are met with silence. No hectoring, no lecturing - just silence. That would send the most powerful message."
• Anti-US ideology has deepened in South Korea in the past year and intensified following the December election of the liberal Roh Moo-hyun. Many South Koreans say that Kim Jong Il won't harm fellow citizens, and that, therefore, there is no danger of attack from the North. The South doesn't want to isolate the North, and may not wish to apply much pressure there.
• Japan is still talking with Pyongyang and can play an effective role behind the scenes. Tokyo is worried about North Korea's missile program because its latest rockets can reach Japan. The two countries were moving toward normal relations in September. But the story of Japanese kidnapping victims has so soured Japanese public to the North that regular aid may dry up.
• Relations between Russia and North Korea are historically close. Kim Jong Il's father, Kim Il Sung, was originally chosen by Moscow to lead the North after World War II, and Moscow supplied money and aid until the early 1990s. Russia wants to keep its eastward reach strong through ties with Pyongyang. After talking with Russian President Vladimir Putin this summer, Kim Jong Il agreed to meet with Japanese leader Junichiro Koizumi. The North Korean ambassador to Moscow is a key diplomat for Kim Jong Il; Moscow may emerge as a key interlocutor for the US.
• China shares a long border with North Korea, consisting of two rivers that are now freezing over and facilitating escape. China wants good US relations, but not at the expense of border problems with the North.