The Bush administration has softened its approach toward North Korea, but the rhetorical realignment may have more to do with appeasing allies and stalling for time to deal with Iraq than any fundamental change in its thinking.
At the start of the standoff, President Bush's strategy was to lead the allies in a campaign to squeeze North Korea into submission. When the South Koreans and other allies balked and the North Koreans responded with a policy of brinkmanship, the president had little choice but to change tactics.
By modulating its rhetoric -- without dropping the demand that North Korea abandon its nuclear weapons program -- the administration may score points around the world.
That may defuse mounting pressure from South Korea, Japan, China and Russia for a negotiated settlement. And it may even succeed in bringing North Korea to the negotiating table -- although whether Pyongyang and Washington can strike any deal remains to be seen.
A close parsing of remarks this week by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and others makes clear that even if North Korea agrees to halt its nuclear program, it would have to submit to inspections every bit as intrusive as those underway in Iraq.
That's something, the administration knows, that the secretive regime in Pyongyang is likely to refuse. But by demanding a deal that better constrains North Korea's ability to make nuclear weapons and is easier to verify than the so-called Agreed Framework that the Clinton administration signed in 1994, the Bush administration hopes to have it both ways -- to change course and to insist that it is preserving its policy and its principles.
Some conservatives are already howling "appeasement." But that is a price the administration is willing to pay to extricate itself from what seemed to be a dead-end strategy.
Will it work? In the unlikely event that the North Koreans say they are willing to deal, can Bush take "yes" for an answer? Is he prepared to cut a deal with an "axis of evil" nation whose leader he has said he "loathes"?
Although the administration insists that its policies haven't changed and are perfectly clear, experts are divided about what exactly the administration really wants. Some say that although Washington professes to be open to talks, the administration doesn't want a deal, it wants to stall.
"It's in the best interests of the Bush administration at this point to bide its time," said Sung-Yoon Lee, a professor at the Fletcher School of International Diplomacy in Medford, Mass. "I believe this is going nowhere at this point, and probably that's the plan of the Bush administration as well. Everybody in the region wants to stall."
But Joseph Nye, dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, said the administration realizes that "time is not in our favor on this one." North Korea is believed to be sitting atop enough plutonium to make six nuclear bombs within months. "If we stall, and they make them, it increases North Korea's bargaining position," he said.
Nye said the Bush administration has revisited the Clinton administration's policymaking process and ended up at the same unfortunate conclusions. "The options are, talk 'em out or buy 'em out," Nye said.
A preemptive military strike is too dangerous. The "squeeze 'em out" option -- using sanctions to isolate North Korea's Kim Jong Il and force him to give up his nuclear program -- is useless against a leader willing to starve his own people, Nye said.
"And while we wait for the squeeze to work -- and notice that the squeeze hasn't gotten rid of Saddam Hussein in 10 years -- [Kim] is developing his nuclear weapons," he said.
But if the Bush administration is going to make a deal, it wants to make a better one than President Clinton struck in 1994 -- an agreement that the current administration's hard-liners deplore.
Conservatives have argued that the Agreed Framework was a bad bargain.
In exchange for North Korea's freezing its nuclear program, the U.S. agreed to send it fuel oil and the South Koreans, Japanese and Europeans pledged to build it two light-water nuclear reactors.
The deal "did succeed in capping production" of nuclear material, Powell said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal this week. "But [it] left intact the capacity for production. I think, therefore, that we need a new arrangement, and not just go back to the existing framework."
He raised the possibility -- also being discussed on Capitol Hill -- that the U.S. could offer conventional oil-burning power plants that would help North Korea's energy shortages, while requiring in return the verifiable removal of all nuclear materials from North Korea. The 1994 deal did not force the North to hand over its spent plutonium.
This tough stand doesn't mean that the Bush administration is "insincere," as the North Koreans allege, said Peter Brooks, an Asia policy expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
"It's not a ploy -- it's truth in advertising," Brooks said. "The fact is, we are going to require more reciprocity, transparency and verifiability," particularly because North Korea has been caught red-handed cheating on its last nonnuclear deal.
The Bush administration would not be giving in to blackmail if it gave the North Koreans security guarantees, diplomatic recognition and aid, and received in return a real, verifiable end to the nuclear threat, Brooks said. "They're not going to give up their nuclear program for the good of mankind," he said. "You have to deal with them realistically."
Chung-In Moon, a South Korean visiting professor at Duke University, said the Bush administration needs to be prepared for tough negotiations in which the North Koreans would demand an end to U.S. hostility, security guarantees, gestures of respect and U.S. diplomatic recognition.
"North Korea wants both dialogue [with the U.S.] and a nuclear bomb" because that will make it feel most secure, Moon said.
And that's precisely why diplomacy is needed, he said. "What is the purpose of having a State Department except to tell them, 'You can have the dialogue but not the bomb'?" he said.
There are those among Bush's critics who don't think negotiations with North Korea are a bad idea -- but they skewer the administration for what they call hypocrisy in its strategies of diplomacy with North Korea and threatening war on Iraq.
"They say we don't have to attack the country that's kicking out U.N. inspectors, but we do have to attack the country that's accepting them," said Richard K. Betts, director of the Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University.
"We don't have to attack the country whose weapons of mass destruction are too advanced, but we do have to attack the one whose threat is in the future.
"Politics is full of double standards," Betts said, but added: "They have a bug in their heads about Iraq, so they have to claim North Korea is different. Well, it is different, but in a way that makes it more dangerous.
"It would be hilarious if it weren't so serious."