Tonight's dinner in Washington between President Bush and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun - and a visit by Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to Crawford, Texas, next week - indicates the White House war on terror is expanding from the Middle East to North Asia.
Having toppled the regime in Iraq, a state that allegedly has weapons of mass destruction, the Bush team finds it unavoidable to deal with Kim Jong Il's North Korea - a regime eager to assure the world it has nuclear destruction capability.
The next few weeks are crucial to White House efforts to find a common approach to North Korea, both in its own policymaking ranks and among its Pacific allies, South Korea and Japan. Without a collective effort, it will be difficult to pressure or induce Mr. Kim to dismantle his two nuclear programs, experts say.
Yet a common approach has so far eluded this administration. The Kim regime has skillfully kept all sides off balance by a series of feints and jabs, as well as a roundhouse claim during American-North Korean-Chinese talks in Beijing that it now has nuclear weapons and reprocessed plutonium. Also, the liberal political winds that helped elect Mr. Roh last December and the very different sharp public fears in Japan over North Korea in recent months have made it difficult to achieve a common policy.
Washington itself has been "all over the map," as one official puts it, on the question of North Korea. With Roh and Mr. Koizumi set to visit, US officials say all options are on the table - from military strikes, to sanctions, to various packages of sticks and carrots.
Some Bush officials are said to feel privately that there are no options and that in coming months there may come a broad, reluctant realization that Kim's desire for nuclear weapons accession can't be stopped.
That would be "a total set-back," says Ashton Carter, a Korea and security expert at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass. "An administration that lets North Korea go nuclear will show a dereliction in the most important security question facing this country."
What will come out of the Roh and Koizumi visits, White House officials hope, is a common approach to bring Kim into the international mainstream - and the basis of new talks hosted by the Chinese. Secretary of State Colin Powell has been engaging in a series of phone conversations with his counterpart in China, Li Zhaoxing.
High-level sources say the White House wants both negotiations with the North and sanctions. Some sanctions will be informal - interdiction of North Korean drug smuggling and counterfeiting. But if the North demonstrates "nuclear weapons and completion of reprocessing, then formal sanctions [through the United Nations] will be inevitable," an official argues.
The 6 p.m. White House meeting Wednesday, followed by dinner, will be the first between the South Korean leader and the American president. The talks have been much anticipated in Seoul, and some US officials say the meeting is as important as any Bush will have this spring. As Korea observers look toward the array of issues regarding US presence in Asia - the problem of a divided Peninsula where North Korean artillery could turn Seoul into toast in a few hours, the problem of a nuclear North, and how to accommodate a new generation in the South that desires a more equal relationship with Washington and whose grassroots anti-US military sentiments helped elect Roh - they say that this meeting will set an important tone.
"To get the kind of coordination needed to deal with North Korean nukes, the alliance needs to be on sturdy ground," says Victor Cha of Georgetown University. "This is the first meeting after a year of relations between the US and South Korea that seemed to be a difficult period. I think we are past that now."
Diplomacy between South Korea and the US is being closely orchestrated to close any perceived gaps and to emphasize a desire on both sides to resolve the Korean nuclear question peacefully. From the time Roh was elected, say interlocutors who know both men, there was an expectation of good relations between Roh and Bush, both of whom are "folksy," and who are said to rely on "gut" instincts and to bank heavily on personal relations in their decisionmaking.
This chemistry is likely to be important - since there are some large differences between the two sides. The Bush team wants to discuss various sanctions and to keep military options on the table (although the long held idea of "surgical strikes" against, say, the Yongbyon nuclear facility are now said to be in disfavor even by hawks).
Roh, a strong believer of the "Sunshine Policy" of his predecessor Kim Dae Jung, is said to believe that military options should not be raised. The South Korean position on sanctions is unclear. When asked two weeks ago in Seoul about the possibility of sanctions against North Korea if diplomacy failed, South Korean Foreign Minister Yoon Young-kwan declined to comment, since the question involved "conditionalities" that are still "theoretical."
Dr. Cha believes, however, that elements of the cardinal South policy of engagement toward the North have been changing since the April 23 US-China-North Korean talks in Beijing. During the "Sunshine Policy" period between Seoul and Pyong-yang, which brought Kim Dae Jung a Nobel Prize in 2000, South Korea assumed that Kim's nuclear program was only a "bargaining chip" to be given up one day in exchange for economic development.
"There is a growing realization in the South, since Beijing [talks], that North Korea may want to be a nuclear state, and that it may not be possible to turn them away from this aim," says Cha. "In the South, also, there is an awareness that the grim economic problems right now are not just due to SARS or US policy, but are the result of the environment created by North Korea's demand for nuclear weapons."
Sources in Seoul say that "while there is a tactical political shift toward the US alliance, there is not yet a similar social shift in people's thinking," as one analyst put it. "We are still questioning the US."
Roh started his US visit in New York, where he told reporters that he hopes the US Defense Department will rethink plans to redeploy US troops to new bases below the Han River - at least until the nuclear question is resolved. US forces have guarded the North Korean DMZ for more than 50 years, and have long been called a "trip wire" against a North Korean infantry attack. Roh had been on record some years ago as supporting a withdrawal of US forces entirely from Korea. But since being elected Dec. 20, the new president has consistently moved away from a "leftist" or "progressive" position, and toward a more status quo position - partly, experts say, because the US troop presence seems to be an assurance to markets and overseas investments.
"The fruits of this meeeting won't be seen for weeks," argues Bates Gill of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "At that time, we may see a united front [involving] Beijing, Japan, and South Korea to show to the North."