Ten years ago, when US officials negotiated to shut down North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear plant, they were amazed at the complexities. Diplomacy between the North, the South, the UN, and the US was a vexing combination lock, one witness remembers, which would not open unless all four sides were in agreement.
If anything, coordination is tougher today: Japan has worries about a 1998 missile test by the North. South Korea has invested considerable time and funds in the North over the past three years. And China is worried about a collapse of the North, which would send thousands of refugees across its border.
Currently, at least five different proposals for dealing with a nuclear North Korea are swirling in the international diplomatic ether - including, most recently, a proposal by Japan for a seven-nation consortium to work out a solution to the crisis.
But as the North continues to methodically escalate its nuclear brinkmanship, common ground between the US and its main Pacific ally may be weeks or even months away, sources here say.
That became evident Monday after the first meeting here between a top US envoy and South Korean president-elect Roh Moo-hyun.
"It has been three months since the North's enriched uranium program was revealed," says Paik Jin-hyun of Seoul National University. "But I don't see a common strategy between the three main allies, US, Japan, South Korea. No one has any idea what the US is up to. This is disappointing."
US envoy James Kelly's trip comes days after Kim Jong Il withdrew from the Nonproliferation Treaty and threatened to resume ballistic missile tests if his demands are not met. The stepped up threats are causing states such as China, Russia, and Japan to chafe at the isolated regime, though no party is advocating a military option.
The withdrawal of North Korea from the Nonproliferation Treaty, "destroys South Korean and Japanese efforts to soften a US stance that included talk of an economic blockade of North Korea," editorialized Japanese newspaper Asahi Shinbun Monday.
In Seoul, Kelly offered only brief phrases like "seeking understanding" and "talking over views" to characterize the meeting with Mr. Roh. Sources described this as diplomatic code for a large gap between the two Pacific allies. Roh, who has vowed to follow the carrot-rich Sunshine Policy of engagement with the North, repeatedly stressed the need for "dialogue" with North Korea in meetings with Kelly, South Korean newspapers reported. Roh also sought to assuage Kelly that recent anti-US feelings in the South were not representative of the majority of the Korean people.
Despite a recent shift in the US position to accept talks between the US and the North, the White House is known to advocate using sticks like economic sanctions, as well as carrots, in dealing with what some Washington officials describe as Kim Jong Il's "nuclear blackmail."
Sources here say that US-South Korean agreement may await the visit of president-elect Roh to Washington as late as March - an extraordinary amount of time, given the nearly daily nuclear and missile rattling of Kim.
One rationale offered is that a slow approach will actually pressure Kim. In this reading, His recent pyrotechnics - kicking out nuclear inspectors and and sending an envoy to meet with former Clinton official Bill Richardson - are designed to cut a security deal with the US before the expected Iraq war ends.
"Time is not on the North's side," says the Seoul based source. "That is why they have stepped up the campaign to broker a deal."
The problem with this reading, says a Western analyst in Seoul, is that Kim can easily escalate further threats. He can place a test missile on a launch pad or move the spent plutonium fuel rods to the Yongbyon reprocessing plant - highly provocative acts that can be detected by satellite photos. "What do you do if, in a few weeks, Kim is unhappy, and decides to take a next step toward the abyss?" the analyst asks.
Kelly, a career State Department official, Monday poured cold water on last weekend's meeting between New Mexico Governor Richardson and two North Korean diplomats, saying it produced "nothing we haven't heard before." Mr. Richardson said North Korea is ready for talks and advocated that the Bush White House start meeting with North representatives.
Along with agreeing to talk with the North, US officials have stated in recent days that they would also be willing to offer food aid to the North, despite the outcome of current diplomacy.
A South Korean reporter asked Kelly if it was possible that any new settlement might include energy for the North or an oil pipeline benefitting both the North and the South. Kelly said energy aid was possible, "once we get past nuclear weapons."
Americans who have heard at least "a fair amount" about North Korea's nuclear plans were asked:
Which poses a bigger threat?
North Korea 46%
What is the best way for the US to keep North Korea from expanding its nuclear weapons capability?
Encourage other nations to use diplomatic pressure 51%
Negotiate directly with N. Korea 25%
Use economic sanctions 13%
Threaten to use force, if needed 8%
Source: Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll, Jan. 6.-11, 2003