N. Korea's latest provocation threatens talks with US, China

After Pyongyang flaunts its nuclear capabilities, the US is unsure it will attend meetings this week.

If there were any hope that talks with North Korea over its nuclear aim will proceed smoothly, the past 48 hours might dispel the notion.

Having just agreed in a stunning breakthrough to meet in Beijing this week with the US and China, the North has succeeded in irritating, dividing, and confusing the situation - provoking US officials to consider scuppering talks, set for April 23 through 25.

The North first issued an eye-popping message originally translated as a claim to have finished reprocessing fuel rods used for making nuclear weapons - a possible talk-buster for the White House. A later translation may indicate only that the North is ready to start reprocessing the plutonium rods. State Department analysts now lean toward this second reading, though they admit the statement seems deliberately ambiguous.

Then the North offered separate negotiations with South Korea, an attempt to divide the allies, experts say, and play to an emotional South that feels left out of such important negotiations. It also suggested Beijing would merely be hosting this week's talks, a slight to the Chinese role.

Some analysts emit a heavy sigh and cite the North's skillful gamesmanship and need for face saving. "We aren't surprised about the North's moves," says a nonplussed South Korean official. "It makes sense for them to talk about reprocessing right now, by their logic," because it raises the stakes.

But the divisive antics stirred hard-line camps in the White House. "We've had talks and talks and diplomacy and agreements for 10 years," says one senior US official with ties to the Pentagon. "What has happened? We've seen all the agreements broken."

As of this writing, the White House is still reviewing whether to go to Beijing - though sources say the US may attend to show patience and partnership with the Chinese on an issue the White House has said should be resolved through diplomacy. Yet the past 48 hours illustrates how tough diplomacy will be. For the regime of Kim Jong Il, which operates under a "military first" policy, a nuclear option is considered a matter of survival, experts say.

Some speculate the North may be provoking a breakup of talks, not confident it can gain the upper hand and concerned that questions about its nuclear program may come starkly into focus.

Whatever the North's position now, says the new South Korean ambassador to the US, Han Sung-joo, "From the start of talks, the North will understand what is expected. They know they can't sign anything that they won't be expected to fulfill. There isn't any ambiguity about that. For that reason, this won't be easy.

"Ten years ago we were talking about a freeze on North Korea's program," Ambassador Han told foreign correspondents in Seoul. "Now we are talking about not stopping, but reversing that program. That is going to be a long and arduous process. The North will have to give up a lot more than it did in 1994," when it agreed to stop reprocessing fuel rods.

A sizable number of US officials remain skeptical. "An enduring theme, no matter what the machinations or rhetoric, is that the North will try to hang onto the nuclear program," says a US military official in Seoul. "That's all they've got to play with, and it is critical to the existence of the regime. Iraq is a good visual aid for why."

Unlike the Iraq campaign, though, which gained a substantial constituency in the White House only days after Sept. 11, Bush administration policy on North Korea has been slow to emerge and extremely contentious. The inclusion of North Korea into the "axis of evil" was hotly debated.

The only US-North Korea meeting under President Bush was held last October - when US envoy James Kelly went to Pyongyang with instructions to confront the North with evidence of a secret uranium nuclear program. The North admitted the program, say team members on that trip, causing a number of dominoes to tumble: shipments of heavy fuel oil to the North were canceled, the North kicked out UN inspectors, and Pyong- yang withdrew from the nonproliferation treaty. Until the Iraq war, Kim was directing provocations almost daily - intercepting US spy planes, testing missiles, canceling meetings with South Korea, and threatening to withdraw from the armistice agreement that has been in play since the Korean war.

Also since last October, the US has been helping North Korea's top scientists to defect, according to a weekend report by a leading Australian daily. Among the defectors, apparently, is Kyong Won-ha, the founder of North Korea's nuclear program.

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