The Korean peninsula approaches a potential turning point this week, today with the inauguration of conservative former business leader Lee Myung Bak as president of South Korea and, tomorrow, the first-ever performance by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang.
As the Bush administration moves into its final year, Ms. Rice may have few, if any, opportunities left to overcome stumbling blocks that have undermined the sense of progress engendered by the signing of the six-nation agreement a year ago.
After attending the inauguration here, Rice flies to Beijing and Tokyo. She will prod leaders in all three capitals to move swiftly to get North Korea to fulfill its promise to reveal all its nuclear activities, including its nuclear inventory and its dealings with countries such as Iran and Syria.
Despite North Korea's apparent foot-dragging, many analysts believe other parties' attitudes toward the North are changing. With increased regional interdependence, the South has pressed for reconciliation while engagement has replaced confrontation in US policy.
"The US-Korean relationship is founded on a set of assumptions based largely on the cold war," says Stephen Bosworth, a former US ambassador to Korea. "That changed profoundly. We must take into account new realities in Asia."
Mr. Bosworth, now dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., cites "a set of connections on a regional basis," notably "economic interconnectedness," and also questions whether the US will need to keep troops permanently based in South Korea.
South Korea's attitude toward North Korea has softened as well. Far from viewing the North as a threat, Bosworth continues, the "predominant view" is that the North "is an object of charity."
More development, more demands
That outlook is likely to pervade the policy of Lee Myung Bak as he attempts to make good on campaign promises to triple the average income of North Koreans while also talking tougher than his predecessor, Roh Moo Hyun, whom he has criticized for demanding very little in return for aid provided the North.
Lee – the former mayor of Seoul and, 30 years ago, chairman of Hyundai Engineering and Construction Co., then Korea's biggest builder – sees North Korea as falling within the embrace of his "economy first" policy. North Korea, he believes, could grow economically with an "open-door" policy in which foreign enterprise were welcomed.
Mr. Lee's desire to implement his own view on North Korea helps explain why Rice has said it would not be "useful at this time" for her to make a dramatic flight to Pyongyang after the inauguration.
Many experts believe she would accomplish little of substance in talks there, anyway. "I don't think we have any reason to believe their attitude has changed," says Kathryn Weathersby, visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "Economic aid is not sufficient as a guarantee of goodwill."
Music may not help
Most analysts aren't optimistic about North Korea's increasing its cooperation as a result of the goodwill engendered by the performance of the Philharmonic, which began its tour in China and is to appear in Seoul after Pyongyang.
Yet even without Rice in North Korea, the occasion is certain to generate a chorus of diplomatic chatter. Many hope it will move the US closer to removing North Korea from the State Department's list of nations sponsoring terrorism.
Donald Gregg, former US ambassador to South Korea and chairman of the Korea Society, an influential organization that functions with South Korean government support, is among the guests.
The list also includes Evans Revere, formerly second-ranking US diplomat in Seoul, who succeeded Mr. Gregg as president of the Korea Society; and William Perry, who was secretary of defense under President Clinton.
Yet another guest will be the chair of the Hyundai Group, Hyun Jeong-eun, widow of Chung Mong-hun, who led the group until his suicide in 2003 amid revelations of his role in passing about $500 million to North Korea to bring about the North-South summit of June 2000.
Ms. Hyun's presence underlines the economic aspect of North-South reconciliation. "I am moved to go to Pyongyang and see the New York Philharmonic perform," she says.
"I hope that in the future relations between the two Koreas will create harmony that is like the beautiful harmony that is characteristic of the world-famous New York Philharmonic," she adds.