As the world learns of the startling possibility that North Korea has a second, unreported nuclear plant, the regime of Kim Jong Il continues to escalate its threats and provocations - putting new pressure on the Bush administration to respond.
North Korea also grabbed attention this past week by shooting at guard posts across the DMZ and positioning heavy artillery close to the South Korean border. Meanwhile, air samples above the North indicate that the regime may not be reprocessing weapons-grade plutonium at the well-known Yongbyon facility, but at some hidden location, reported The New York Times Sunday.
The recent provocations by Mr. Kim seem timed to coincide with an unusually public and vigorous Chinese diplomatic effort to bring the US and North Korea to the negotiating table, experts say. This weekend, Chinese envoy Dai Bingguo was in Washington, after being granted a rare audience the previous week with Kim, in an effort to restart three-way talks held in Beijing in April.
An influential group of Chinese officials, moreover, seems newly concerned that the North is actively developing a nuclear capability, that Kim is more worried about his personal safety following the Iraq war, and that the US-North Korea dynamics involved in the nine-month crisis could be speeding in a direction that jeopardizes the stability of East Asia.
"China is so active because the idea of a nonnuclear peninsula is being broken; North Korea is taking things to the brink," argues Zhang Lian Gui, a leading professor at the Communist Party School in Beijing. "Kim Jong Il has told his people for many years that they are poor, but that they are sacrificing for the cause of nuclear weapons - something that only a few other countries in the world can boast. He may decide now is the time to play that card. He doesn't have many options."
If anything, the current concern in China contrasts ironically with what has at times been seen as the White House position that Kim is simply bluffing and does not have the ability to achieve a serious nuclear capability. Either as a dismissive backhand to Kim or because of an Iraq war focus, the White House has steadily refused to term the North Korea issue a "crisis" - though it early leaned on China to use leverage with its neighbor to stop its nuclear program.
North Korea watchers have long felt that despite the difficulty of "reading" or making sense of Pyongyang's moves, one consistent trademark of the regime is the creation of a crisis or emergency that will bring them to the negotiating table.
"The North is continuing to pursue a crisis-driven negotiating strategy," says Scott Snyder of the Asia Foundation in Seoul. "But the Bush administration is aware of this, and their choice is to resist it. What you now see is that the reaction from the North side is to drive harder. Whether this is a game of chicken, or a willful or perhaps accidental circumstance, still it is clear there is a potential for spiraling out of control at this point."
Some US diplomats and experts in Asia worry that the projected timelines that Washington and Pyongyang are using to calculate each others' capability and behavior are being misread - including the possibility that North Korea may well achieve deliverable nuclear-weapons capability before the regime collapses due to planned sanctions and a stone-age economy.
Since October, when North Korean officials admitted having a secret enriched uranium program in violation of a previous 1994 agreement, a large debate has ensued over what constitutes a "red line" past which the North should not be allowed to take its nuclear ambitions. In October, the "red line" was often described as any move by Kim to kick out UN inspectors from the Yongbyon facility. Kim did so back in December. Now White House officials sometimes say an actual nuclear test would be a "red line."
North Korean officials, for their part, have claimed repeatedly since May that they are reprocessing spent plutonium fuel rods used to make weapons-grade materials. One by one in recent weeks, the intelligence and security services of Asian as well as US government sources, have hinted at a range of activity in the North that suggests a greater degree of weapons accession.
When South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun was in Beijing last week, Seoul intelligence officials described some 70 small explosions in the North in recent months, that indicate the testing of triggering devices for nuclear-tipped missiles. Former Defense Secretary William Perry last week told reporters that the Korean question could bring war by the end of the year, and warned of the North's potential to deliver nuclear devices to US shores. International Atomic Energy Director Mohamed ElBaradei three days ago described North Korea as "currently the most immediate and most serious threat to the nuclear nonproliferation regime."
Chinese diplomacy, which appears successful in securing some kind of future talks, could create an opening. Finding the format for talks has taken strenuous effort. The US had insisted that Japan and South Korea be included, but Kim has reportedly balked on this - while again agreeing to meet with China at the table. US Secretary of State Colin Powell said last week, as Mr. Bingguo was in Washington, that he was "optimistic" over a meeting.
Yet even many Chinese experts feel that while Kim conceded a procedural point in agreeing to meet, the substance of demands by the North (a detailed US guarantee of security) and by the US (a complete dismantling of North nuclear programs) are so far apart as to make any progress unlikely. "I'm quite pessimistic," argued one well-placed Chinese source.
"North Korea is enjoying a lack of similarity with others," one Chinese diplomatic adviser pointed out. "It is not so easy for them to meet and make concessions."
Mr. Synder hopes that talks, while perhaps appearing fruitless on the surface, could provide a format for both the US and North Korea, "for their own reasons, to back off this path."