It is the foreign policy crisis that the Bush administration does not want to call a foreign policy crisis: a charter member of the "axis of evil" moving rapidly ahead with a nuclear weapons program.
Last week, North Korea pushed its nuclear confrontation with the United States to a new height by announcing it will reopen a mothballed plutonium processing plant. If it delivers on this threat, the world's most isolated and xenophobic nation could have enough fissile material to build a half-dozen nuclear bombs within six months, according to many experts.
But U.S. officials are still refusing to use the C-word to describe the latest round of brinksmanship.
"We are not thinking in those terms," said a senior administration official, when asked whether the White House had established any lines that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il must not cross.
"The North Koreans would like nothing better than to create an atmosphere of crisis so they can blackmail the international community into granting them benefits. But they are just going to be further and further isolated."
The deliberately low-key handling of the Korean drama seems out of sync with President Bush's own rhetoric about the potentially "catastrophic" dangers posed by rogue states seeking weapons of mass destruction. In his State of the Union speech last January, the president included North Korea with Iraq and Iran as part of an "axis of evil arming to threaten the peace of the world" in conjunction with terrorist groups such as al Qaeda.
The absence of warlike rhetoric is also in stark contrast with the administration's "zero tolerance" approach toward Iraq, whose weapons programs are generally considered to be much less advanced than those of North Korea.
In the case of Baghdad, the United States is preparing to go to war with a country that has just readmitted a hundred or so United Nations weapons inspectors. In the case of Pyongyang, the White House has said it has no intention of resorting to the military option, even though Pyongyang has just ordered the last three U.N. inspectors to leave.
Bush administration officials describe their strategy toward Pyongyang as one of containment through escalating economic pressure. Elements in the strategy could include encouraging North Korea's neighbors to reduce trade with Pyongyang, and intercepting weapons exports, which are a valuable source of hard currency for North Korea. In addition, the administration is acting behind the scenes to encourage the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, to take the dispute to the Security Council.
The problem with this strategy, say independent experts, is that North Korea's neighbors are far from agreed on the amount of pressure to apply to Pyongyang.
"China holds an important key," said Alan D. Romberg, a former State Department official now with the Henry L. Stimson Center. "While China is opposed to North Korea having nuclear weapons, they are also opposed to chaos in North Korea. They are reluctant to apply any kind of sanctions unless they have to."
National security adviser Condoleezza Rice rejected suggestions that the White House is so preoccupied with Iraq that it has not focused sufficiently on the gathering crisis on the Korean peninsula, where 37,000 U.S. and nearly 700,000 South Korean troops face a 1 million-strong communist army, in one of the last remaining Cold War flashpoints. Instead, Rice emphasized the geopolitical differences between North Korea and Iraq, and the need to develop different strategies for different members of the "axis of evil."
"They are two different places," Rice said in an interview. "We have a substantial deterrent to aggression by North Korea. The North Koreans have limited economic options, but we are talking about an Iraqi regime that has earned 3 billion dollars in illicit oil gains to refuel its [weapons] programs. We also think we have better diplomatic options with North Korea than with Iraq."
The semantic argument over whether Pyongyang's reactivation of its nuclear facilities constitutes a foreign policy crisis goes to the heart of the Bush administration's strategy for dealing with North Korea.
Administration officials and their supporters say Kim is ratcheting up the tension to "intimidate" the United States into resuming economic assistance and sign a nonaggression pact. To label the confrontation a crisis, they say, would only play into Pyongyang's hands.
The White House maintains that North Korea is deepening its political and economic isolation through a series of provocative acts that began in October with the revelation of a secret uranium enrichment program. This month, North Korea reopened nuclear facilities that were frozen as part of a 1994 agreement brokered by the Clinton administration.
U.S. officials note that North Korea's action has been condemned by most of its neighbors and potential big-power patrons, such as China, Russia, Japan and South Korea.
Such logic is unconvincing to many experts on North Korea. They contend that Kim is trying to set up a situation in which he wins, whatever happens.
If Washington backs down and opens negotiations with him, he will gain the international respect that he desperately craves, as well as economic maneuvering space for his bankrupt regime. If the Bush administration refuses to talk, then Kim will push ahead with his nuclear weapons program as rapidly as possible, making it much more difficult for Washington to stage a preemptive military strike against him.
Pyongyang's strategy is based on a high-risk gamble that the United States will not resort to force, no matter how provocative North Korea's behavior.
According to former Clinton administration officials, the U.S. considered a preemptive strike against the Yongbyon nuclear facility in 1994 to prevent a dispersal of fuel rods containing plutonium. In the view of many experts, military action has become more difficult because of fears that North Korea may have one or two nuclear weapons and could subject the South Korean capital of Seoul to a devastating artillery barrage. It also has a proven medium-range missile, the No Dong, that can easily reach Japan.
"By feigning nonchalance, the Bush administration risks encouraging a dangerous regime to step even further forward," said Kurt Campbell, an Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who was responsible for Korea policy at the Pentagon during the Clinton administration.
"When the North Koreans reactivated their nuclear reactor, the White House called it 'regrettable.' That's the kind of word you use when the soup isn't very good before dinner."
While putting most of the blame on North Korea, Campbell said the United States risks escalating an already dangerous situation by avoiding contact with Pyongyang at all costs.
Other experts say Kim is reacting out of a sense of deep insecurity, compounded by Bush administration rhetoric about the "axis of evil." They note that in an interview with Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward last summer, Bush said he "loathed" the North Korean leader and indicated he would be happy to see him be toppled.
Administration officials say that they were ready for "extensive discussions" with Kim earlier this year, but the North Koreans made it impossible by brazenly defending their decision to establish a uranium enrichment program in violation of their commitments under the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. "Nobody, especially the president, is talking about attacking North Korea," Rice said.
If the North Koreans want to return to the negotiating table, the administration said, they first must return to the 1994 "agreed framework" that froze their nuclear programs in exchange for U.S. deliveries of heavy fuel oil.
Joel S. Wit, a State Department expert on North Korea during the Clinton administration, said he saw "no sign" that the administration had developed a "serious strategy" for stopping North Korea from acquiring a large nuclear weapons stockpile.
"The Bush administration strategy seems to be based on the assumption that the North Koreans are just playing chicken and that, if we outwait them, they will just give in," he said. "But the pace of events is moving much more rapidly with North Korea than with Iraq.
"If we attacked Iraq next year as opposed to next month, I am not sure the situation would be that different. The North Koreans, on the other hand, seem to be moving gung-ho toward making nuclear weapons."
Some Asian experts take a less alarmist view than Wit and Campbell. Victor D. Cha, a Korea scholar at Georgetown University, said that North Korea is "playing into the hands" of the Bush administration. "The worse they behave, the more credibility it gives to the idea that you can't engage this regime," he said. "You just have to isolate it and contain it."
Donald P. Gregg, the U.S. ambassador to Seoul from 1989 to 1993, is an advocate of resuming dialogue with Pyongyang. He said he is encouraged that the administration has not threatened force against the North Koreans, in contrast with 1994, when "superhawks" called for bombing the North Korean reactor.
"I am concerned, but I am far from panicked," said Gregg, who visited North Korea in November. "There seems to be a recognition in the administration that what is happening in North Korea is unpleasant, and possibly destabilizing, but it is not something that is taking place at 60 miles an hour. It is going to take six to 12 months before the North Koreans can produce additional plutonium."