When it comes to what North Korea's leader Kim Jong Il will do next, even a Japanese diplomat who dealt with Korea's nuclear crisis 10 years ago is confounded. "In 1994, I never worried about a security threat. It was more like a game. But this time, I just don't know. Nothing Kim might try would surprise me," he says.
Elites throughout East Asia know something must change in North Korea. High- level US sources traveling here report a keen awareness among top leaders in the region that North Korea plans to nuclearize the peninsula - an action that would be too destabilizing to accept.
But with the US sending clear signals that its focus is on Iraq, not North Korea, frustration is rising in South Korea, Japan, and China over an increasingly complicated diplomatic mess. They worry that Washington and Pyongyang may misjudge each other. In addition, Mr. Kim's unpredictability, combined with uncertainties about the US role, is creating new fears - including loss of foreign investment, an arms race, and old regional rivalries.
"There is concern in Beijing about [the US] pushing North Korea over the edge, and that [China] would bear the brunt," says a top US official who met with Chinese leaders recently.
Beijing's latest concern is the aggressive rhetoric emerging from Japan, which last week stated it would not hesitate to "launch a strike" against North Korea if it appeared ready to attack Japan. Chinese TV and newspapers have not reported those statements. But Monday, several Chinese websites, including the official Xinhua site, posted an article titled, "Japan is using the North Korean crisis to create an atmosphere to rearm," and accused Japan of "secretly deploying troops."
In South Korea, the North Korean conundrum has given new life to old charges that outgoing President Kim Dae Jung's historic 2000 meeting with the North Korean leader was essentially purchased through secret cash transfers of hundreds of millions of dollars - bringing a new questioning over the effectiveness of the South's "Sunshine Policy" of engagement with the North.
On Feb. 14, President Kim apologized for a scandal that involved the Hyundai Group secretly giving the North $200 million prior to a Nobel Prize-winning meeting with Kim of the North. Hyundai eventually paid the North $500 million for business and tourism concerns there. President Kim, who will leave office next week, argues that no legal wrongdoing occurred.
Since October, North Korea has admitted having a secret uranium-based nuclear program, has kicked UN nuclear inspectors out of the country, and says it is no longer part of the non-proliferation treaty. On Sunday, it announced plans to build four new reactors, larger than the controversial Yongbyon facility.
Last week's decision by the board of governors of the IAEA to take North Korea's case to the UN Security Council is considered a stern measure that will allow international sanctions against the North.
US officials said they have no intention of pushing sanctions at this time; North Korea says that sanctions would be tantamount to "war."
The East Asian states have been generally pushing the US not to go it alone on Iraq and to stick to a UN Security Council framework. But when it comes to North Korea, they have resolutely urged the US to talk bilaterally with the communist state to put an end to the crisis on the Korean peninsula.
The US has been saying the problem is an international one, and has been attempting to "embed" talks with North Korea in a "multilateral framework," as the senior US official put it.
China is worried about a collapse of the North that would send potentially hundreds of thousands of North Koreans to its northeast region. That region already contains many thousands of Koreans - many there illegally under Chinese law. The resulting admixture of refugees joining with the current Korean population would be a security nightmare, sources here say.
Chinese levels of sensitivity were on display last week when China went along with the IAEA vote to send the North Korean case to the Security Council, but then stated that any action by the Security Council could be counterproductive.
"We feel it is not a proper time for the Security Council to get involved [in the North Korean case]," said Beijing's foreign ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue.
"The Chinese want to build on good relations with the US," says a Beijing diplomat. "But in this case, they don't want to be pressured to choose openly between the US and North Korea."
Japanese officials have expressed concern that North Korea could launch missiles against its state or conduct some form of "nuclear terrorism" by guerrilla units already in the country.
As the Japanese foreign ministry official put it, "Some of us think the war against Iraq is easier to fight than is a real handling or disarming of North Korea. The thing that worries me is that 10 years ago, you could see a careful game being played. I don't see much game this time."
Next month, for the first time, Japan will launch two satellites designed to inspect closely the infrastructure of North Korea. Both Chinese and South Korean security officials are deeply opposed to what they call a "spy satellite." They argue that the satellite could be used to observe their territory as well.