By John Pomfret
Thursday, September 16, 2010; 9:52 PM
The United States and its allies in Northeast Asia are trying to fashion an opening to North Korea out of concern that the current policy toward the isolated nuclear-armed nation could lead to war, U.S. and Asian officials said.
Anxiety is rising on both sides of the Pacific that tightened sanctions and joint military exercises - what U.S. officials have called "strategic patience" - could, if continued indefinitely, embolden hard-line factions in the North to strike out against South Korea or to redouble efforts to proliferate weapons of mass destruction.
Officials said the broad outlines of a new strategy were beginning to take shape, with the United States, South Korea and Japan reaching general agreement on a way forward.
The three allies want North Korea to express regret for the deaths of 46 sailors who died when the country allegedly torpedoed the Cheonan, a South Korean warship, on March 26. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak had previously demanded that North Korea acknowledge its guilt and apologize, but it appears that demand has been softened to something more like condolences, a senior Asian official said.
"This has to be done in a way that addresses the grievances of the South Koreans," said a senior Obama administration official who discussed the deliberations on the condition of anonymity.
There is less agreement on what would be expected of North Korea after a statement of regret. Some officials said they would want to see the North take specific steps to reverse its nuclear program before any real talks began.
In late August, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton gathered analysts and policymakers for a seminar on the North. According to participants, Clinton was convinced that the United States and its allies needed to find a way to reengage the North.
"There are two legs of the stool so far," said one participant. "Sanctions and military exercises. But she views talking with the North as the indispensable third. If you just continue sanctions and exercises, that's a road to war."
Other participants said that no one in the meeting was under any illusion that North Korea could be convinced to end its nuclear weapons program soon. However, there is a growing consensus that talking with the North could function as a form of containment.
The United States doesn't seem to have any plans to lift sanctions on North Korea as a reward for simply returning to the table. Wallace Gregson, assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs, told a Senate panel Thursday that the sinking of the Cheonan was an "act of war," that sanctions would continue and that the United States wants to see "meaningful actions" by North Korea before international talks are resumed.
There are signs that the North is also trying to find an opening. It has asked for - and accepted - South Korean aid following a series of natural disasters. And during the trip of its leader, Kim Jong Il, to China in August, he was quoted by China's official Xinhua News Agency as recommitting North Korea to denuclearization.
Chinese officials have been urging the resumption of six-party talks - which grouped China, the United States, South Korea, Japan, Russia and North Korea.
It is unclear whether the moves by the United States and its allies will have any affect.
The top U.S. diplomat for Asia acknowledged Thursday that the United States does not understand what is happening in North Korea and could only guess whether its current leader is in the process of handing over power to his third son.
"In fundamental ways, North Korea is still a black box," Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, told the same Senate panel. "We have some glimpses and some intelligence and the like, but the truth is, oftentimes in retrospect some of that intelligence has proven to be wrong. It's a very, very hard target, probably the hardest target we face in the global arena."
North Korea announced over the summer that it was going to hold a Workers' Party conference in "early September." Analysts had presumed that the meeting was part of an elaborate maneuver on the part of the ailing 68-year-old Kim to begin the power handoff to son Kim Jong Eun - believed to be in his mid-20s. But the meeting has been postponed.
When asked by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) whether the United States expected Kim Jong Eun to replace his father, Campbell quipped: "Your guess is as good as ours, Senator."