With the crisis over North Korea's nuclear programs looming in the background, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice this week will dash across Asia, seeking to nudge East Asian allies into a coordinated strategy for confronting the reclusive communist nation.
Some U.S. and Asian officials are increasingly convinced North Korea has no intention of giving up its nuclear weapons programs, opening up the possibility that the Bush administration and perhaps Japan would begin to favor pressing for tougher action against the reclusive communist nation.
But many Chinese and South Korean officials believe it is necessary to keep pressing along the diplomatic track, even though North Korea has refused to return to six-nation negotiating sessions that have been dormant for nine months.
Rice, who leaves tomorrow, will begin her week-long journey in South Asia. She will assess the rapprochement between India and Pakistan -- including possibly approving the sale of F-16 fighter jets to both countries -- and visit Afghanistan to discuss the nation's epidemic of opium production.
Then, during a visit to Japan, South Korea and China, Rice will address the North Korean problem. She will also give a speech in Japan about Asia's role in the world, a theme that would encompass not only Japan's interest in playing a greater role in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but also the growing economic, political and military might of China.
Since Bush took office in 2001, China has used its soaring economic power to increase its influence across the Asian-Pacific region while its military buildup has alarmed Pentagon military planners. The Chinese government also is considered critical to resolving the impasse with North Korea because it supplies Pyongyang with much of its energy.
"We recognize that one of the biggest challenges for the United States is to foster the integration of China into the international system in a way that it's a productive force, not a destructive force," Rice told Congress last week. "So a lot of our efforts are aimed at that."
Pyongyang announced Feb. 10 that it possessed nuclear weapons and would not return to six-nation talks on dismantling its programs. Since then, the United States and other nations in the region have tried to persuade North Korea to return to the discussions, but with little success. The North Korean leadership has responded with a list of conditions, including a demand that Rice apologize for calling it an "outpost of tyranny."
U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said there is widespread disappointment within the administration over China's performance thus far in trying to lure North Korea back to the talks. A senior Chinese official traveled to Pyongyang shortly after the Feb. 10 announcement and elicited a highly conditional statement from North Korean leader Kim Jong Il that his government might return to the talks.
More disturbing to U.S. officials, the Chinese in private discussions have indicated they are not yet willing to increase pressure on North Korea, though no other nation appears to possess the same amount of leverage. Chinese officials have even expressed some sympathy for North Korea's concern over the "outpost of tyranny" remark, suggesting a pullback of that remark would set a positive tone for the talks.
Rice, in an interview with the Washington Times last week, rejected that idea. "I don't think there's any doubt that, you know, I spoke the truth," she said.
Chinese officials also have repeatedly pressed the United States to show more flexibility in the negotiations. For instance, they have also proposed that the United States join Japan and South Korea in providing fuel oil to North Korea once Pyongyang agrees to permanently give up its nuclear programs -- a significant concession that U.S. officials have rejected.
Rice will visit Tokyo and Seoul first, apparently seeking to knit together a common message to present to the Chinese, considered the linchpin for getting the North Koreans back to the talks.
Publicly, the participants in the six-party talks continue to insist they are committed to them. But North Korea's continuing refusal to attend has begun to shift the debate within the administration, with some officials now considering ways to move beyond the stalled talks to a series of economic and diplomatic pressure tactics, including bringing the matter to the U.N. Security Council. Other officials, however, maintain that North Korea's announcement was merely a negotiating ruse.
Over the past two years, the administration in effect has pursued both a diplomatic track and a pressure track, such as trying to halt North Korea's trade in illicit goods. One official said that if the diplomatic track remains frozen, then the tactics used to isolate North Korea would certainly increase in importance.
The six-party talks were last held nine months ago, when the United States presented a modified proposal for ending the impasse. North Korea, which has sought billions of dollars in energy, economic aid and loans in exchange for giving up its nuclear ambitions, has never officially responded to the offer.
Under the U.S. proposal, if North Korea agrees to terminate its nuclear programs, South Korea and other U.S. allies could provide immediate energy assistance to North Korea, which would have three months to disclose its programs and have its claims verified by U.S. intelligence. The United States eventually would join its allies in giving written security assurances and participate in a process that might ultimately result in direct U.S. aid.
An Asian diplomat involved in the talks said there had already been discussion with U.S. officials about how to pull the plug on the six-party talks, such as holding a pro forma meeting that would make it clear they would not resume again. He said U.S. officials had told the Chinese that if another session is held, North Korea would be expected to make a serious counteroffer to the U.S. proposal. "We won't be meeting just to talk," he said.
The Chinese response thus far suggests the administration may face difficulty if it tries to ratchet up the pressure on North Korea. China values stability on its border and has always viewed North Korea as a buffer to U.S. troops in South Korea.
"An interesting question for the Chinese is whether they would prefer a North Korea without nuclear weapons or a North Korea that remains a buffer state," the Asian diplomat said. "I don't know the answer."