Can the new subtle approach to North Korea work?

We are seeing an intriguing paradox in President Bush's second-term foreign policy.

In his first term, Mr. Bush selected as his secretary of State, Colin Powell, who was depicted - correctly or not - as the administration's man of moderation, even sometimes of dovish inclinations.

Despite this image, Secretary Powell was a forceful public supporter of the tough Bush line toward such miscreants as Iran, Iraq, and North Korea - the "axis of evil." He argued persuasively at the UN that Iraq was concealing weapons of mass destruction - weapons that turned out not to be there. He supported the military assault on Iraq, probably in spite of private misgivings. In other words, the man of moderation loyally implemented an aggressive foreign policy.

In the second term, Bush appointed a tough right-winger of unquestionable hawkish instincts, Condoleezza Rice, to shepherd foreign policy. She gives little quarter to tyrants - communist or otherwise. Yet Secretary Rice, who one suspects is perfectly willing to favor military force if required, has infused foreign policy in the second Bush term with diplomacy, negotiation, and skillful nudging. In other words, a more moderate thrust.

It isn't clear whether this impetus originated with the president, and Rice is simply implementing his directive to try subtler methods, or whether Rice, whose judgment is immensely respected by the president, has deftly persuaded him that this is the wise, second-term course.

Nowhere is this turn of events more evident than in the current negotiations with North Korea to head off its development of nuclear weaponry. Where once there was bluster and threats from Washington toward Pyongyang, there now are reassurances that the Bush administration has no plans to launch a military attack against North Korea and that it recognizes the sovereignty of the North Korean regime. There are even, despite the longtime US reluctance to engage in them, one-on-one talks between the US and North Korea on the fringes of the current six-nation talks (China, Russia, Japan, the US, South Korea, and North Korea) long favored by the US.

Whether partly because of this new US tone, or whether partly because of pressure from China, its principal mentor, North Korea agreed to resume last week the six-party talks it had broken off more than a year ago.

How is North Korea reacting to the new US tactics? The jury is still out and it is too early to know whether North Korea is really considering dismantling its nuclear program in return for a massive program of aid from its interlocutors, or whether it is just stringing them along while it continues to forge ahead producing the nuclear weaponry it says it has under way. The North Koreans may also be testing the will of a new generation in South Korea that has little memory of the Korean War and seems readier to accommodate the Pyongyang regime.

One astute American observer who has been privy to classified intelligence about the North Korean leadership says: "They may make promises, but will they keep them? If we get to serious negotiations about verifying on-site that they've abandoned their nuclear program, they're going to balk."

Christopher Hill, who heads the US negotiating team in the Beijing talks, stresses the extent of the differences. But he and his team have been probing to determine the real intent of the North Korean leadership and to test its willingness to sign a joint and probably rather elliptical statement about shared principles. This might be the basis for continuing talks, but it postpones discussion of the tough issues that set the parties apart.

The North Koreans have said they want a peace agreement to replace the cease-fire that ended the Korean War. This, they say, would result in the "denuclearization of the Korean peninsula." But their concept of denuclearization means the US abandonment of its nuclear umbrella over South Korea. The US denies it has nuclear weapons on South Korean soil, but its ballistic missiles, and its nuclear weapons capability from US ships at sea, are designed to deter any North Korean attack on the South. The US is not about to fold up that umbrella.

There is a new tack to the US negotiating position on North Korea. The North Koreans are also apparently throwing out some new ideas. It remains to be seen whether real progress can be made in neutralizing the nuclear threat from a dangerous regime that has practiced duplicity in the past and is a present master of confusing hyperbole.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, served as assistant secretary of State in the Reagan administration.

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