Ten months into a nuclear standoff with North Korea that has consumed the energies of Northeast Asia, influential US hawks in the Bush administration feel the time is ripe to focus steadily on Kim Jong Il, leader of the isolated North, as Asia's main antagonist.
Ironically, the strategy of isolating Mr. Kim as the principal culprit comes amid a multinational effort to get that same Kim to the negotiating table.
Thursday, in a hard-hitting speech, John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control, said Kim has rejected "olive branch after olive branch" while turning his country into a "hellish nightmare."
A broad range of Asia hands, in fact, feel a recent series of tactical mistakes by Kim, including his recent threats to test nuclear devices, is exposing the Dear Leader more clearly as a liability to his neighbors, China, South Korea, and Russia.
The strategy pursued by Bolton: Separate Kim as "dictator" from the people of the North as "victims" - and promote a discourse in Asia that holds Kim responsible for regional instability, and for creating massive prison-labor camps, the poverty of his country, and for ongoing efforts to develop nuclear weapons.
In short, the implicit message from Bush hard-liners is, as one administration official says, "We still believe in 'regime change,' and we want that understood as part of the push to get Kim to see the light."
Bolton is a close ally in White House political circles of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, and Vice President Dick Cheney - influential skeptics of negotiations with Kim Jong Il. President Bush has so far backed multilateral talks overseen by Secretary of State Colin Powell. Mr. Bush Wednesday phoned President Hu Jintao of China, a lead player in talks, expressing support for a diplomatic process that has been extremely taxing.
Bolton referred to Kim Jong Il 43 times in a four-page speech, while making reference to "North Korea" only 15 times - itself a message, sources say.
"The brazenness of Kim Jong Il's behavior in the past year is striking," Bolton told an audience of the East Asia Institute in Seoul. "While nuclear blackmail used to be the province of fictional spy movies, Kim is forcing us to live that reality..."
"Action is needed," Bolton offered to a set of Korean academics and officials, many of whom favor a more flexible policy of engagement with the North.
Since 1994, the undersecretary for arms control said, "billions of dollars" have been sent to "buy off" the North. But nine years later, Kim Jong Il has "not one, but two separate nuclear weapons programs...."
He was referring to revelations last October, when the North admitted having a secret enriched-uranium program in addition to an existing plutonium program. In 1994, the Clinton administration brokered a deal in which the North agreed to stop reprocessing plutonium in exchange for the building of two light-water reactors.
Early this year, Kim ejected UN inspectors who were monitoring some 8,000 spent fuel rods used to make weapons grade plutonium - and the North has since reprocessed some or all of those rods, setting off worry in this region, and in Washington.
Washington intelligence sources say that while the North may be able to achieve numerous plutonium bombs early next spring, the more "troubling" issue is the North's heavy enriched uranium program. Plutonium traces can be detected in the air through sensors. But uranium is not detectable, and is relatively easy to hide.
Administration sources, however, denied as "not just wrong, but dead wrong," a report earlier this month by The New York Times claiming that traces of Krypton 85 have been discovered in the air above North Korea. Krypton 85 is a telltale substance, which the Times said indicated a possible second and heretofore unknown plutonium reprocessing plant in the North.
Bolton's speech comes at a time when South Koreans are deeply divided over how to regard the North. For years following the devastating Korean War, Pyongyang was regarded as a communist enemy. But in recent years, the South has pursued a "Sunshine Policy" of engagement that sought to view the North as fellow brother and sister Koreans. Current President Roh Moo-hyun was elected in December on a promise to continue that policy.
"I felt Bolton made a wise speech," says conservative Jung Hoon-lee of Yonsei University in Seoul. "There is confusion here between the North Korean people and the North Korean regime. We want to see our country as a whole, and to approach the North with sympathy. But we need to keep in mind that the biggest problem is the regime, not the people, and that gets forgotten."
Kim's isolation is being brought on partly by his own actions. The North's recent admission of reprocessing and nuclear aims have surprised many sympathizers in the South, and in China. Last fall, Kim admitted the North had kidnapped 11 Japanese in recent decades. But he did not admit kidnapping what is estimated at hundreds of South Koreans. The historic meeting between Kim and South Korean President Kim Dae Jung in 2000 earned a Nobel Prize for peace. But the emotional event has soured in the wake of evidence this spring that the South wired hundreds of millions of dollars prior to the meeting. Nor has Kim Jong Il ever fulfilled a promise, made in 2000, to visit Seoul in reciprocation.
Joon Ki-sung, a graduate from a local college in Seoul last year who hasn't found a job, attributes the bad economy in Korea to Kim's nuclear brinkmanship. "I have problems with US troops here," she says, "but I'm not a fan of Kim Jong Il, either."
Bolton has been in Asia drumming up support for an initiative to interdict drugs and nuclear-related technology coming to and from the North. He is also trying to rally support for a US plan to sanction the North through the UN Security Council, should multilateral talks fail. The North has said it will treat UN sanctions as "an act of war," and China and Russia, and to some degree South Korea, have opposed sanctions as premature.
Bolton disagrees. He characterized UN sanctions as "an alternative track" if multilateral talks in Beijing should fail. "The North should know it can't just block the Beijing track [of diplomacy]," since that would bring the alternative, Bolton said.
What effect the Bush hard-liners may have on Kim's willingness to deal, or on internal dynamics in the North, is unclear.
Some Korea specialists feel that political conditions in the North are unstable, and ripe for some form of collapse. Others say the proud military regime, one of the most tightly controlled in the world, has weathered the starvation of some 2 million of its people in the mid-1990s - with no discernable protest or attempt to overthrow the leader. They argue that Kim is dealing from a position of strength.