by Jim Lobe
(IPS) WASHINGTON -- Increasingly frustrated over its failure to get North Korea back to the negotiating table, the Bush administration is taking new steps virtually certain to escalate tensions with the third spoke in his original "axis of evil," analysts said.
Last Friday, the administration announced that it was reviewing plans for future U.S. food-aid shipments to Pyongyang, although it denied a Wall Street Journal report that it had abruptly cut off shipments through the end of this year.
Several days later, however, the Defense Department announced that it had suspended a nine-year-old mission to recover the remains of U.S. troops killed in the North during the Korean War. It suggested that the safety of U.S. teams in North Korea could no longer be ensured due to "an uncertain atmosphere."
Topping it off, the Pentagon confirmed Friday that it was sending 15 F-117 stealth fighters to South Korea, apparently due to concerns that Pyongyang may test a nuclear weapon at any time. U.S. intelligence agencies have estimated that the North has at least two bombs and as many as eight.
While these moves were certain to increase tensions, U.S. State Department, or foreign ministry, officials hinted that Washington may be more flexible regarding North Korean demands for bilateral nuclear talks, provided these take place within the framework of six-party talks which also involve China, Japan, South Korea, and Russia.
"If we can get going with the six-party talks, anything is possible," Christopher Hill, the new assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs, told the House of Representatives international relations committee Thursday.
While the combination of the week's moves suggested the implementation of a careful and coherent carrot-and-stick strategy designed to coax North Korea back to the table and head off a test, observers said the latest events are the continuation of a fundamentally incoherent policy that continues to be fought over by hardliners led by Vice President Dick Cheney and more moderate forces centered in the State Department.
In an echo of policy disagreements over Iran, hardliners believe Washington's top priority in North Korea ought to be toppling the government in Pyongyang -- "regime change," in the Washington vernacular -- while moderates favor engaging Pyongyang in order to get it to renounce nuclear weapons in exchange for guarantees of peaceful co-existence and economic and other forms of assistance.
The resulting impasse -- now into its fifth year -- has drawn increasing consternation and concern by much of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment. With North Korea's declaration in February that it is a "nuclear state" and the possibility that a nuclear test may be imminent, a number of policy veterans have argued that it has become particularly urgent to forge a coherent policy focused on achieving denuclearization, rather than the more ambitious goal of regime change.
On Thursday, for example, former President George Bush's national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, a moderate, appealed for the administration to make a comprehensive offer either through bilateral or multilateral talks of "security assurances, economic cooperation, and diplomatic recognition -- in exchange for North Korea's complete and verifiable elimination of its nuclear weapons program."
"A policy of regime change could not gain South Korean and Chinese support," Scowcroft wrote in the Wall Street Journal. "Without that, it would be irresponsible to rely on Kim Jong Il's demise as the solution -- and a mistake to call that a policy rather than a wager based on uncertain odds."
The fundamental problem created by the continuing struggle for control over policy, according to Fareed Zakaria, former editor of the influential 'Foreign Affairs' magazine, is that the two policy directions work at cross-purposes.
"If President Bush keeps announcing and implying that he is praying and working for Kim Jong Il's overthrow, that will tend to make Kim want to keep his nuclear insurance policy," Zakaria wrote in 'Newsweek' last week in an analysis that would appear even more trenchant in light of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's dispatch of stealth bombers.
The hardliners have long insisted that China, which convened the six-party process, is the key to bringing Kim to heel, either by arranging his overthrow through Beijing's contacts with the North Korean military, or by threatening to cut off oil and other supplies to the North unless Kim agrees to Washington's terms.
According to the hardliners, Beijing, which they believe has life-or-death power over Kim's regime, has far more to lose than Washington if Pyongyang tests a nuclear device. A successful nuclear test by North Korea, they say, will almost certainly be followed by a decision by Japan and probably South Korea and Taiwan to go nuclear.
But, to Washington's great disappointment, China has so far refused to go along with this logic. While Beijing has made clear to Pyongyang that it opposes any test that would confirm North Korea's status as a nuclear power, its greater fear is a sudden collapse of the regime that could bring millions of desperate refugees flooding across the border and U.S. military forces up to the Yalu River.
Indeed, Beijing announced earlier this month that it would not apply economic or political sanctions to force North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program. "We oppose trying to address the problem through strong-arm tactics," said a foreign ministry spokesman in what was deemed an authoritative statement released shortly after U.S. intelligence agencies first reported signs that a nuclear test was imminent.
Adding insult to injury just two days later, a senior foreign ministry official charged that Washington bore much of the responsibility for Pyongyang's 11-month boycott of the six-party talks, noting that Bush's public denunciation during a late-April press conference of Kim as a "tyrant" had "destroyed the atmosphere" for a resumption of negotiations.
Even more disappointing to Washington, South Korea, despite its 50-year alliance with the U.S., has taken a similar position, both in ruling out sanctions if North Korea refuses to return to the table under present circumstances and calling on Washington to show greater flexibility.
The State Department has tried to show sensitivity to these concerns. Last week it sent its top Korea negotiator to meet quietly with his North Korean counterpart at the United Nations.
The purpose of the meeting, according to Hill's testimony Thursday, was to reaffirm an earlier statement by Bush that Washington had no intention to attack North Korea, a more recent declaration by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Tokyo that Washington considers North Korea's government to be "sovereign" and that it bears no "hostile intent" toward the regime; and that Pyongyang could bring up anything it wished at the six-party talks.
Hill's testimony was followed by the Pentagon's announcement that the F-117s were on their way.
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