US options in the North Korea stand-off

With Bush reelected, the North Koreans may have judged February a good month to turn the spotlight back on themselves.

No longer does the Bush administration refer to North Korea as a member of the "axis of evil." Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently gave Pyongyang's status a relative boost - calling it an "outpost of tyranny" instead.

But there's another phrase officials use for the hermit nation of East Asia, albeit only in private: "difficult to crack." Two years after North Korea announced its withdrawal from the nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty, the US and its partners appear as far as ever from reestablishing any sort of international oversight of North Korea's nuclear activities.

In recent days US officials have hinted at an intensified strategy for approaching the Kim Jong Il regime, based in part on renewed efforts to cut off North Korea's profits from missile sales and other illicit business dealings.

There may indeed be some room for improvement in this regard, say experts. But they add that such economic efforts have long been part of the US diplomatic tool kit. "They're trying to make it appear they have new means to apply pressure on North Korea," says Eric Heginbotham, director of a task force on Korea sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations.

Lately the North Koreans have been using one of their own favorite diplomatic wrenches - inflammatory rhetoric. On Thursday officials publicly boasted that they'd assembled nuclear weapons, and were pulling out of the six-party talks aimed at curbing their atomic work.

The North Koreans have said similar things before, but their precise use of the word "weapons" was new, sending a shiver through many experts who study the region. It's possible that Pyongyang had been awaiting the outcome of the US elections. With President Bush reelected, and top US officials focused more on Iraq and Iran, the North Koreans may had judged February a good month to turn the spotlight back on themselves.

The US has many nations to manage relations with, and tries to deal with crises around the world. But North Korea's not like that, points out Kun Young Park, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution Center for Northeast Asian Policy. Washington is its lodestar, the nation around which all its other international efforts revolve.

"The foreign policy of North Korea is its US policy," says Kun Young Park. "North Korea is very attentive to what US government officials say about them."

In that context the phrase "outpost of tyranny" might continue to rankle North Korean officials, says Mr. Park However much those words may be true, different words might get a different result. There are policy divisions within the North Korean government, he says, and the US should do all it can to bolster the position of those who favor reengaging in the six-party talks, by being more reassuring.

On Tuesday the newly named US lead negotiator for the North Korea effort stressed diplomacy as the way to defuse the crisis. "We are very dedicated to the six-party process," said the official, US ambassador to South Korea Christopher Hill.

The six parties are the United States, North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, and Russia. The US has stressed that contact with the North Koreans should occur through this process, while the North Koreans insist that what they want is direct bilateral talks with Washington.

"There are very big obstacles in the way of holding six-party talks," North Korean diplomat An Myong Hung told the UN Conference on Disarmament in Geneva on Tuesday.

That is true in one sense: The US has a lot to do to hold together its partners in a unified position on North Korea. Of the other parties in the talks, South Korea and China remain to be convinced that the relatively hard US line is the best approach.

The US insists that North Korea must agree to give up its illicit weapons programs, under international supervision, before it can receive large amounts of international aid. By contrast, Seoul and Beijing would like some carrots pulled out and waved around somewhat earlier in the game.

South Korea's population may be tiring of the soft approach, however. In Japan continued outrage over North Korea's past kidnappings of Japanese citizens has been one important element pushing the Japanese government toward a harder line. "Japan continues to move closer to the American position," notes Mr. Heginbotham of the Council on Foreign Relations.

On March 1, for instance, the Japanese will begin requiring that arriving cargo ships carry liability insurance against spills or other damage. This move will have the effect of banning much trade with North Korea, whose shops have no such coverage.

China, North Korea's only remaining real international patron, remains a key wild card. Secretary of State Rice spoke by phone with her Chinese counterpart over the weekend, and a Chinese delegation is expected to visit North Korea sometime this week.

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