The potential shift in US outlook comes as Pyongyang ratchets up tensions and the new US administration formulates its policy on North Korea. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton plans to visit the region next week.
"I'm not going into terminology," Gen. Walter Sharp, commander of US forces in Korea, said Monday, but acknowledged North Korea had "successfully" conducted a nuclear test while proclaiming its desire to be a nuclear power.
General Sharp's comment fueled concerns here that the US is conceding the nuclear-power status that North Korea craves. Leon Panetta, designated to direct the Central Intelligence Agency, signaled the shift in official thinking last week when he observed at a Senate confirmation hearing that it was not clear if North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was "prepared to give up that nuclear capability."
Those comments coincided with reports of North Korea moving a long-range Taepodong-2 missile to a launch pad on the east coast, after repudiating a North-South nonaggression pact that took effect 17 years ago and appearing to harden conditions on giving up the warheads it already has.
"This is typical North Korean tactics," says Kim Sung-han, professor of international studies at Korea University. "When North Korea is interested in negotiating a certain issue, they need to create tensions." Its central interest now, he says, is "sending a message to the US, and to South Korea too, before the Obama administration finishes its policy review."
South Korea's conservative president, Lee Myung-bak, is trying to win assurances of the Obama administration's full support. He has pursued a hard-line stance since taking office a year ago, cutting off aid that South Korea had delivered for years to North Korea.
While aware of concerns about recent North Korean "threats," Mr. Lee said Monday in a radio address, "you do not need to worry too much."
US intelligence analysts estimate the North has fabricated six to a dozen warheads but doubt the North has the capacity to deliver them to targets.
Satellite imagery last week showed that North Korea had transported a Taepodong-2 missile, with a range of several thousand miles, to the site from which a Taepodong-2 was launched unsuccessfully in July 2006. That missile arced into the sea after a flight of 40 seconds.
"They are moving parts, assembling it," says Mr. Kim. "Then they will be putting fuel into the missile. It's a salami tactic. They are not going to launch it immediately."
Experts say North Korea is likely to return to six-party talks, at which it agreed two years ago to abandon its nuclear weapons program, while holding out for bilateral negotiations with the US.
An unofficial US team, back from Pyongyang, reported North Korea's eagerness for both types of talks. "We all learned that six-party process can be very useful," says Stephen Bosworth, former US ambassador to Korea, now dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University, predicting "there will be both."
Korean analysts, though, see North Korea's likely acceptance of six-party talks as a ruse to exclude the South. "The Obama administration will start off with six-party talks," says Kim Sung-hak, North Korean analyst at Hanyang University in Seoul. "Then right away they will start bilateral talks in parallel before they talk of concessions."
Mrs. Clinton is expected to try to coordinate with South Korean leaders on a common response when she arrives here Feb. 19-20. She is stopping first in Japan and goes from here to China, which has been hosting six-party talks since 2005.
The fear here, meanwhile, is that North Korea will stage low-level attacks to test US and South Korean resolve. "The level of threat is higher than before," says Kim Tae-woo, vice president of the Korean Institute for Defense Analyses. "They are threatening another provocation" by possibly test-firing a short-range missile or attacking South Korean navy ships.
"They want to manage the sense of insecurity" – and "encourage antigovernment forces in South Korea," Mr. Kim adds.