A war of wills over North Korea's nuclear aims has taken at least a detour down an unmarked road - with questions about whether six-party talks will continue, calls by China and South Korea to keep the process moving, and indications by the US that an economic blockade of the North could ensue.
North Korea's stated disinterest in further talks if the US doesn't offer concessions, combined with a new threat of nuclear tests, has caused some analysts to say the North may be backing into a dangerous corner, while others feel the North's tactics are a predictable bluff.
For China, the most active agent and host of talks that took all summer to arrange, the moment is a difficult one, requiring a test of patience that until now, no one but the South Koreans have exhibited in dealing with their isolated Northern kin.
Yesterday the South called for a "new diplomatic push" just hours after warning the North that any efforts to expand its nuclear program would "further aggravate" the situation.
"What we face is a very adamant country that desires to have nuclear weapons," says Shi Yinhong, director of American Studies at People's University in Beijing. "In China's eyes, North Korea's statements to end talks, especially coming immediately after the six-party agreements, is a humiliation. That the old ally can so quickly change their position is not a pleasing thing."
Not only must China face a possible withdrawal in talks by a neighbor that depends on China for 80 percent of its life support, but Bceijing officials yesterday were visited by the Japanese defense minister, who had an easier task of explaining why his country is entering into a $1.2 billion per year deal with the US to build antiballistic missile systems. During last week's talks, the North stated it would "prove" it could deliver weapons via missiles.
Yet according to a Sept. 1 Boston Globe article, this latest impasse between the North and its neighbors could be brief. Citing unnamed State Department sources, the Globe reports a major policy shift supposedly under way at the White House - toward the concessions, security guarantees, and normalized relations with Pyongyang that were dangled by the Clinton Administration. Other sources say it seems far too early in the bargaining process for such a deal.
In fact, some analysts feel that Kim Jong Il is entertaining a notion that he can follow India and Pakistan into the nuclear club; both tested a device in 1998 without international approval. With the US preoccupied with Iraq and the Middle East, with domestic electoral politics beginning to rule the day in Washington, and with a "policy paralysis" in the US over how to treat the North, they feel Kim may view this autumn as a window of opportunity.
That would be a major miscalculation, argues Scott Snyder of the Asia Foundation in Seoul, among others. "If the North does test, that will be a paradigm shift for the entire region," Mr. Snyder says. "For Kim Jong Il, a nuclear test is a suicide option, it is a dead end. But whether [the North] thinks of it that way, I don't know."
Chinese sources say an event as significant as a nuclear test, taking place in the midst of Beijing's diplomatic exertions, would "immeasurably strengthen the hand of those in China who want to take tough action against the North," possibly by cuts of oil or even joining in a UN Security Council action - something China has opposed.
A nuclear test "would create a broad consensus for a coercive approach," says Snyder.
Yet Russian diplomats yesterday said the North would probably return to the table, and veteran Asia watchers point out that in 1993 negotiations with the Clinton administration, a deal was reached only after 55 rounds of talks.
Pyongyang's threat to reject talks is "predictable," argues Carl Baker, an analyst with the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu.
"North Korea probably wants to get an early start on influencing the next round of talks by garnering sympathy for its position that the US must soften its stance on the legitimacy of North Korea, and forestalling any further talk about regime change as the ultimate solution."
In retrospect, neither Washington nor Pyongyang, the two most significant players, came to Beijing with the intention of making a deal, experts say.
The US asserted a hard-line position requiring an immediate dismantling of the North's programs. The North, where clout is determined by proximity to leader Kim Jong Il, sent a relatively unknown official whose lack of regional experience indicated to insiders that he had no authority to negotiate freely.
"North Korea is not going to come to Beijing and 'hammer out' a deal," argues Mr. Snyder. "It will be a protracted series requiring breaks for the sides to recalculate."
What's unknown, and what may explain the lack of sharp reaction by Russia, China, South Korea, Japan, and the US, is the content of talks with North Korea during various sideline talks in Beijing.
That all six parties agreed to a formula, called "synchronous parallel implementation" by China's chief interlocutor Wang Yi - something requiring the US and North Korea to offer concessions at the same time - may be promising.
Currently, the US will offer a security guarantee and aid and funds only after Kim Jong Il dismantles his program; US officials say any other solution is "blackmail." Yet that formula may change if both sides can agree to take steps simultaneously.
"Actually [the North] got as much as they could have expected from the first round of talks, in that the final communiqué recognized the need for simultaneous action on their security concerns, along with the US demand for dealing with the North's nuclear weapons program," argues Lt. Col. Baker.