Only days after a relatively low-ranking North Korean official informed US envoy James Kelly that his country possesses nuclear weapons, the American foreign-policy establishment is deeply riven over how and whether to engage with the isolated military regime of Kim Jong Il.
In this period after talks between the US, China, and North Korea, two questions loom large in Washington. The first is whether a second round of talks would be relevant. Secretary of State Colin Powell this week revealed that North Korea offered to dismantle its weapons and missile programs in exchange for "something considerable." Both diplomacy and dismantling would likely be lengthy processes, according to a South Korean diplomat.
The second question, closely related, is whether China is willing to play a role large enough for the White House to count on in bringing a diplomatic solution to the seven-month standoff, sources say. China was a surprise player in hosting the closely guarded three-way talks last week, and it was critical to the diplomacy that US hardliners are dubious about.
The divide in Washington is most striking between hardliners in the Defense Department who feel that Mr. Kim is using a form of nuclear blackmail and moderates in the State Department who think that talking doesn't mean capitulation. The struggle has developed into what some observers call 'internecine warfare,' with memos being leaked to both sides and to media by fifth columnists in the departments.
The White House approach to the nuclear North is being shaped ahead of a summit between South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and President Bush in mid-May. Some analysts feel the North's position has narrowed US options to a short list: negotiate, attack, or accept a nuclearized Korean Peninsula.
"The emotions on how to approach the US role in the world today have reactivated an extraordinarily deep division here, and that is playing out in North Korea," says Kurt Campbell, a director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. "It comes out of Iraq, out of the Middle East, and [from] those with sharply different views on China."
The State Department has the lead role on North Korea, and in recent days Mr. Powell has tried to soften the latest revelations about the North's weapons claims. Powell denied that the North Koreans threatened to test nuclear weapons during formal talks. "They never used the word 'test,' '' he said.
In the first official encounter with the Kim regime since October, when the North admitted having a secret uranium enrichment program, the US left with two impressions, according to Washington sources.
First, Kim has adopted a maximum level of brinkmanship by stating through officials for the first time that he has nuclear weapons. Second, in the wake of the Iraq war - and after Powell spent some diplomatic capital inside Washington to get the talks - North Korea used the meetings hosted by China to play tough and to say "If you think we are another Iraq, think again," says an Asian specialist in Beijing.
"The lesson Kim seems to have taken from Iraq is, if you want to avoid Iraq's future, have a workable nuclear fission device," says James Mulvenon of the RAND Corporation. Tuesday, official Pyongyang news wires stated that it would be "pointless" to continue with talks, if the US demands that it scrap its nuclear program.
There is no certainty the North actually does possess the nuclear capability it claims. The declaration to Kelly by Ri Gun, the low-ranking North Korean official, was reportedly made during a coffee break. It may well have been a bluff - though if so, it would give ammunition to regime change-oriented officials who already say the North can't be trusted. Mr. Ri's evident statement that the North has already reprocessed all 8,000 of its spent plutonium fuel rods is doubted by US intelligence officials.
Still, given the North's potential to develop and sell weapons, "there aren't many choices [for the White House]," says Don Oberdorfer, author of "Two Koreas." "You either negotiate, which doesn't mean giving in. Or you accept North Korea as a nuclear power and try to limit what they do with their material. Or you don't live with it, and attack."
What the White House is hoping for, however - perhaps counting on - is that the Chinese will play an increasingly decisive role. Some former US officials like Mr. Campbell feel that for a diplomatic solution that emerges from the State Department, "China is the linchpin."
Just how much cooperation is taking place between the US and China is a closely guarded secret in Beijing. China does not want to damage its old and valued channels to Pyongyang. Yet some former US officials with close ties to the administration say China and the US have taken enormous quiet steps behind the scenes in recent months, and have become nearly "strategic partners," as one knowledgeable source puts it.
"For there to be a real second round of talks will require the active participation of China, and in the next few weeks, we will see if there is any [participation], with respect to Beijing," says Derek Mitchell, an Asia expert with CSIS.
Yet many China hands in Beijing have doubts about the degree of cooperation the country will take. China's role in bringing the US and North Korea to the table is in its own interest; China does not want a war or flood of refugees from North Korea, and desires to keep a buffer zone between its borders and US bases in South Korea. But whether Beijing can so quickly shift its historical distance from the US is viewed with pessimism even by supporters.
Shi Yinhong of People's University, an advocate for closer Washington-Beijing ties, says that it is "still US policy that is the key to dealing with the North. I think the American media has originated the idea that China can do something."