Satellite photos indicating that North Korea is cranking up its nuclear program - turning on its Yongbyon reactor and testing equipment that reprocesses spent-fuel rods - are deepening worries in Japan that Kim Jong Il is approaching a point of no return in his self-styled standoff with the US.
Asian diplomats acknowledge the US wants North Korea to make the next diplomatic move. But Mr. Kim, they say, is using US preoccupation with Iraq to engage in activity that will later make it impossible for the White House to countenance any kind of talks. And, they say, neither Kim nor the White House realizes how far apart they are in trying to defuse the crisis.
The logic of these events, despite US assurances to the contrary, could force a decision to use hardline measures, even military means, against North Korea - if Kim stockpiles weapons-grade plutonium that he can sell, these sources say. That decision would hold risky consequences for northeast Asia.
Since last fall, when Kim began a rapid series of steps and threats, officials have focused on a central question: Is North Korea bluffing, or is it serious about making nuclear weapons?
South Korean officials say Kim is escalating to achieve talks with the US. But the Japanese have a different conclusion: that Kim is following a two-track policy that will allow him to play his hand to gain concessions or achieve weapons, depending on circumstances. "We feel at some point last fall, the North Korean leadership took the decision to make nuclear weapons," a senior Japanese official says.
A number of Japanese diplomats, alarmed at the North's increasing isolation, privately want the US to find means to talk with Pyongyang, though most admit they haven't found a suitable formula yet.
"There is a possibility of diplomacy now," says an Asian diplomat who has negotiated extensively with Pyongyang. "Time is a factor. We are worried the North will go over the edge. That won't be good for North Korea, for the US, for anyone. But if I had a formula, I wouldn't be sitting here."
A March 1 report in The New York Times quotes US officials saying that a small reprocessing plant near the main Yongbyon reactor appears ready to be opened. The report spells out a scenario where Kim could reprocess some 800-plus spent fuel rods that were formerly under UN inspection, and do so during the early stages of a US-led Iraq campaign, when it would be difficult to address. It is estimated Kim could reprocess fissile material the equivalent of one bomb per month.
Since last fall, the agreed-upon "red line" that North Korea supposedly could not cross continues to shift. Last fall, it was defined as Kim's kicking out UN inspectors; Kim booted them on New Year's Eve. The starting of the Yongbyon facility was another line; US intelligence reports that Kim started the reactor last week.
Reprocessing may be the next line. Or it may be pushed to an actual test of nuclear weapons - something Kim may not be able to achieve any time soon, if ever.
While China, Russia, and Asian neighbors say the US should hold bilateral talks with the North, it is uncertain whether there is much common ground even if the parties were to meet. "We would tell him, 'Stop making nuclear weapons.' We would say, 'if you want aid, money, food, energy, relations with Japan, then comply with your agreements,' " one State Department Korea specialist says. "But Kim already knows that. Frankly, we are starting to think Kim doesn't really want talks."
The US wants multilateral talks with North Korea, with China, Russia, and neighboring states playing a role. Yet a Japanese diplomat with extensive North Korean experience says this will be difficult to bring off. Kim will not go into multilateral talks, he says. North Koreans traditionally resist pressure, and Kim could not stand the loss of face that would result by meeting in a forum where all parties were push him into a corner to change.
"That's Kim Jong Il's worst nightmare - to enter a format where he is ganged up on," says a Japanese diplomat who visited Pyongyang with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi last fall. "They can't take collective criticism.."
The Japanese feel that of all the Asian states, theirs is the one most likely to be attacked by Kim, should it come to that. Japan occupied Korea for 35 years, and Kim's father formed his core beliefs as an "anti-Japanese guerrilla fighter."
Dealing with Korea has been a bumpy road for the US-Japan-South Korean alliance since President Bush took office. Japan is the key US ally in Asia, and Japanese leaders affirm solid ties. Yet in 2001, when the new Bush team signaled a shift on the policy of engaging the North through dialogue, the news seemed lacking in consultation and dismissive. As months passed, a perceived lack of US policy spurred deepening questions, and in Seoul exacerbated old feelings that Korea has always been an afterthought for the US.
So slowly did US policy develop that last September, when Mr. Koizumi took a first-ever trip to Pyongyang to begin normalization talks, the move looked rather like an end run on a foot-dragging US ally.
Last October brought the first trip to Pyongyang by a Bush official, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly. The trip was designed as a "test," says one White House source. North Korea's new engagement with Japan, and a series of announcements on economic reform and outside ties by Pyongyang, was an "opening to test how serious Kim is about joining the world."
The test involved Mr. Kelly confronting North officials with evidence it was building a secret uranium-enrichment program. The North denied, then admitted to the program - and promptly said it was nullifying the 1994 agreement that shut down Kim's plutonium reactor.
The current dilemma is causing some US Asia specialists to venture that Kim is simply outsmarting the Americans. "The White House has tried to label this a non-crisis, and Kim has upped the ante each time," says one former Defense Department specialist. The State Department has so far seemingly played down Kim's behavior, and some sources speculate there may be intelligence showing that Kim does not have the capability to achieve his goal.
Much of the current narrative is based on US intelligence reports that are difficult to verify. They are being leaked by differing factions in the Pentagon and CIA, whose aims are unclear. As Secretary of State Colin Powell flew through Asia last week, he said Yongbyon had not been started. By the time he returned, reports said it had.
Little is known about whether the leaks are designed to increase US diplomatic activity, to spur Asian states to do more, or as a rationale for planning a military solution if one is chosen.