Since the nuclear standoff with North Korea began last month, Washington has repeatedly rejected making any move that would appear to reward Pyongyang.
But now, under pressure from regional allies to take conciliatory steps - and eager to remove any distractions from its current focus on Iraq - the United States is inching toward engagement.
The US is trying to curry favor with its allies and partners in the region, especially with South Korea and China, so that they take on more of the diplomatic burden. This would make the crisis less of a US-North Korea affair.
"American policy has tended to be unprepared for the North Koreans - and then to reward them when they misbehaved - and we want to get out of that cycle," says Doug- las Bandow, a Korea expert at the Cato Institute in Washington. "I think we are trying to set a new precedent, that positive responses will be rewarded. But breaking old habits isn't easy."
And the policy change may require direct talks - an option that Washington has considered anathema amid President Bush's personal condemnation of the North Korean regime. The US slide toward engagement, although favored in the region, is also meeting some resistance at home.
President Bush signaled a sharp shift away from his "no deals with evil" policy when he indicated Tuesday that North Korea could expect rewards in the form of food aid, energy, and even perhaps diplomatic relations down the road, if it relinquishes its nuclear weapons programs.
The surprisingly conciliatory language from the US comes as one high-level State Department official is in the region, and another is set to visit next week. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly was sent primarily to buck up US-South Korean relations, under increasing pressure from the crisis; while next week Undersecretary of State John Bolton will hold talks with Chinese officials in Beijing.
Mr. Bolton's task will be to encourage China - North Korea's principal ally and patron, providing most of the struggling nation's food aid and other assistance - to use its leverage constructively with the North. The US wants to play on China's ambitions for higher regional status as a way to encourage the country to take on more responsibility for the region's stability, State Department officials say.
China, which firmly opposes a nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, this week offered to host talks between Washington and Pyongyang, saying dialogue is the best way to resolve the standoff.
But North Korea's Foreign Ministry released a statement yesterday rejecting the idea of talks with the US. "It is clear that the US talk about dialogue is nothing but a deceptive drama to mislead world public opinion," said the statement, which went on to say that "the US loudmouthed supply of energy and food aid are like a painted cake pie in the sky, as they are possible only after [North Korea] is totally disarmed."
Given similar vitriolic rhetoric which greeted other conciliatory American gestures in recent weeks, the idea of engagement is tough.
A bipartisan group of senators is pressuring the Bush administration to take off the gloves and get tough with North Korea. Calling their approach a "new strategy" for dealing with the crisis - as opposed to what Bush says is his "bold initiative" - the senators, including Republican John McCain of Arizona and Democrat Evan Bayh of Indiana, this week introduced legislation that would end any aid to the North and reinstate US sanctions.
The bill also urges the administration to toughen sanctions by interdicting North Korean weapons shipments - a chief source of income for the struggling country - and to step up Radio Free Asia broadcasts.
But any pressure that put sticks in front of carrots is unlikely to budge the North, and risks alienating the US from its regional partners, experts say.
Robert Einhorn, a former assistant secretary for nonproliferation at the State Department, says "pressuring North Korea to back down with no quid pro quos is unlikely to work," primarily because the North's neighbors are "unwilling to use all available leverage."
Now a senior analyst at the Center for Strategic and Security Studies in Washington, Mr. Einhorn says he thinks the move toward "engagement" will continue over coming weeks. But he adds that talks won't be able to begin "under duress." As a result, he says the North will have to offer something - such as the suspension of any reprocessing of spent fuel at its Yongbyon nuclear plant. In return, the US could offer guarantees, for example a promise not to strike the nuclear complex at Yongbyon.
The current crisis was set off by the North's announcement last fall that it was reactivating the suspended Yongbyon plant, which experts say is capable of producing enough radioactive fuel for the development of nuclear weapons. The North kicked out international inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency who were monitoring the suspended operations, and it subsequently announced its withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, a global accord aimed at limiting the spread of nuclear weapons. Pyongyang has also threatened to restart ballistic missile testing.
Some observers say the problem with the "get-tough" approach of the Senate bill is that it "ignores the reality of the Korean Peninsula," as Mr. Bandow says. "You certainly want [the sticks of sanctions and even the military threat] floating in the background, but you don't put them up front," he says. "It's a nonstarter, if only because China, which fears the North's collapse, would never go along."
Marcus Noland, an Asia expert and author of the book, "Avoiding the Apocalypse: The Future of the Two Koreas," says another problem with a confrontational approach to the North is that it makes it more difficult to discern what the North really wants.
Early in 2002, he says, before setting off the current crisis, the North signaled interest in economic reforms, suggesting it was ready to consider demobilizing some of its million-man army, if they had jobs to go to. Mr. Noland says the White House "failed to probe those intentions," a slip-up he now calls "a blunder."
Still, Noland also says it remains crucial for the US to achieve a shutdown of the North's nuclear program. Otherwise, the situation could present a "disastrous precedent" for the region and the potential, given the North's weapons-export history, that its nuclear arms could fall into worse hands. The US can't achieve that shutdown without convincing the North there are other ways to attain what it seems to want, Noland says.
A worse problem arises if North Korea's focus is not economic survival but security enhancement. In that case, the time for sanctions and the tough-cop approach may still come, experts say - especially if North Korea is determined to be a nuclear power.
"If North Korea has already decided that it must have a nuclear arsenal come what may," Einhorn says, "then any amount of negotiation is not going to work." And the corollary to that, he adds, is not very encouraging.
"If they insist on developing and keeping [that arsenal], the international community will have no choice but to penalize North Korea for that choice."