Seizing on North Korea's agreement to hold six-party talks, the Bush administration is already moving toward a tough position that will stress verification and cessation of the North's nuclear programs through inspections. The US could disengage from the meeting if the North appears to "lack seriousness," say highly placed US officials.
At the same time, six-party talks with Asian neighbors will allow South Korea, Japan, and China to explain in detail a series of "carrots," including energy, access to loans, and normalized relations with Japan, should the North cooperate. The time and place of the negotiations are not yet known.
For months, Kim Jong Il's military dictatorship has engaged in a standoff of threats and provocations. US officials now say those months have been a "test" of US and Asian resolve - that the North hoped the US would buckle and agree to bilateral talks, meanwhile gaining sympathy from key quarters in Russia and China.
"I think the North sees their strategy is going nowhere," says a source intimately familiar with current negotiations. "They've been probing, trying to test how firm the White House is, how firm [South Korean president] Roh is. And there hasn't been much give. Kim thought Russia and China might close with him. But just the opposite took place. Now it is August and they haven't got anywhere to go. They played skillfully. But there are no tricks left."
Underscoring a tough US opening position, Japanese news sources Sunday said US and Japanese officials are discussing nuclear inspection teams, not from the United Nations, but drawn from all five negotiating partners. The North has steadily warned, and did so again Saturday, that any efforts to bring its case to the UN Security Council would be a prelude to war.
The newly proposed inspections teams would enter North Korea to check on the status of plutonium and secret uranium programs. Some experts doubt that Kim Jong Il will allow such teams to enter his closed society, even with participants from erstwhile allies like Russian and Chinese.
For talks to work, the "right atmosphere" must be created for the North, argues Ralph Cossa of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Honolulu branch. That means: "Kim must be persuaded that there are a lot of benefits to dismantling his program, and that nuclear weapons will make a collapse of his regime more likely. Right now, he thinks the opposite."
In the past, North Korea has used talks to buy time. But if upcoming negotiations are seen as a delaying tactic, sources say - stringing along the partners while at the same time moving quickly to develop atomic capability - the US could lobby to shut down talks.
"They can't drag this out," says one source, speaking of the North.
Yet, that's precisely Pyongyang's strategy in going along with talks, argue some experienced Asia and North Korea watchers.
"North Korea very possibly came to the conclusion already that they [must] have nuclear weapons. If they made that decision, why go along with more talks?" asks Robert Einhorn, a Clinton administration negotiator with the North, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Mr. Einhorn offers two reasons. One, to placate China, which provides the lion's share of energy and food to the North. Two, to "prolong the process, ... forestall pressure for sanctions, ... and present the world with a fait accompli" of nuclear capability.
India and Pakistan, which are not signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, declared nuclear status in 1998. Kim withdrew from the NPT early this year.
China's role in the crisis is being closely watched. Beijing has been central to bringing Kim to multilateral talks. But if talks break down, worries about instability along its border may make China unwilling to take tougher measures, says Einhorn.
"At this point the Chinese would very much like to see a negotiated solution, so they are working very hard to get the parties to the table," Einhorn adds. "We may have convinced the Chinese they have to act more forcefully.... We also want them to be prepared to adopt coercive measures, but that's unlikely. That could lead to instability, and [the Chinese] don't want that."
One knowledgeable source with North Korean negotiating experience was asked by a reporter if Pyongyang would accept international inspectors with clipboards and four-wheel-drives insisting on access to military zones that have not been open to outsiders in decades. The source paused, and said, "I don't know."
It remains unclear what measures could be applied if talks fail. The US has been pursuing a naval "interdiction" strategy designed to stop illicit sources of cash such as drug sales. There are also UN Security Council sanctions; however the White House appears not to be pushing hard along that track.
During the 10-month crisis, which began when the North admitted to having a secret uranium program - in violation of four agreements, including the NPT - the White House has been divided over the wisdom of further negotiations.
Late last week a leading administration hawk, Under Secretary of State John Bolton, delivered a blistering speech in Seoul. He singled out Kim Jong Il as an inhuman tyrant living in luxury while his country is a "hellish nightmare" where some "400,000 people" have died in prisons since 1972.
On Sunday the often-colorful North Korean media called Mr. Bolton "human scum" and a "psychopath," and said that while the North will still join the talks, it will not agree to negotiate with Bolton.
This weekend, in a possible slap to the US, the official North Korean news agency reported its agreement to conduct six-way talks as the last of 15 items on its website. It appeared below an Aug. 1 item detailing Kim's visit to a goat farm that provisions the Korean army.
• Howard LaFranchi contributed to this report.