Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice completed a five-day tour of East Asia on Wednesday, able to claim that intensive diplomacy had coaxed North Korea back to negotiations on eliminating its nuclear weapons programs. But questions remain about whether both North Korea and the United States have made decisive policy shifts in a search for a solution.
For months, Asian diplomats have complained that the Bush administration was inflexible in its approach toward North Korea. Officially, the administration contends it has not changed its policy. But in recent months it has sent a series of diplomatic signals -- such as referring to North Korea as a "sovereign state" -- and encouraged such negotiating partners as South Korea to offer specific proposals, well beyond terms offered by the United States at the last round of six-nation talks more than a year ago.
North Korea, for its part, has taken various positions in the past five months. First, it declared it was a nuclear weapons state and would never return to the talks; then it suggested the talks should focus on arms reductions by both North Korea and the United States. Now, it says it wants to focus on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
In one intriguing hint, a U.S. envoy who met with North Korean officials in Beijing on Saturday to seal the deal on restarting the talks later this month was told that it was the "dying wish" of Kim Il Sung -- the father of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il -- that North Korea give up its nuclear programs. Kim Il Sung ruled the communist state from its founding in 1948 until his death in 1994. Every North Korean official at the meal was also wearing a button bearing the likeness of Kim Il Sung.
On Wednesday, Kim Jong Il appeared to bolster that position, telling a visiting Chinese diplomat that his country was seeking a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, the official New China News Agency reported.
Kim Il Sung died 11 years ago, shortly before North Korea concluded a deal with the Clinton administration to freeze its plutonium processing facilities. The deal, known as the Agreed Framework, fell apart in 2002 when the Bush administration accused the government in Pyongyang of operating a clandestine uranium enrichment program.
The Bush administration never liked the 1994 deal, and some officials privately admit they had plotted its demise even before the uranium enrichment program was discovered. In the words of one advocate of confrontation, it was a "catastrophic success" when North Korea unexpectedly acknowledged the program, allowing the United States to scuttle the agreement. North Korea then ejected U.N. inspectors and declared that it had begun reprocessing spent fuel rods, which had been sealed under the 1994 deal. U.S. intelligence officials have estimated that the reprocessed rods generated enough weapons-grade material to produce a half-dozen nuclear weapons.
Throughout Bush's first term, senior policymakers battled constantly over North Korea, resulting in a stalemate between those seeking engagement and those pushing for confrontation. A June 2004 proposal, for instance, was significantly altered at the behest of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who argued for withholding any direct U.S. concessions until after North Korea's weapons disclosures were verified. That stance particularly irritated South Korean officials, who argued for a token gesture to push the talks along.
South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun, who has been eager to reach an agreement, last week spread the blame for the lengthy impasse. He called North Korea the "most stubborn country in the world" and the United States "the most opinionated country in the world."
Rice, speaking to reporters as she flew back to Washington from Seoul, said she made clear to U.S. allies that "the United States was prepared to work as hard as possible, to roll up our sleeves, to work long hours and long days." But, she said, North Korea needed to demonstrate that it had made the "strategic choice" to give up its weapons.
Some U.S. officials said administration battles over North Korea policy had left the former chief negotiator, James A. Kelly, with little flexibility in the first three rounds of the six-nation talks.
In Bush's second term, tensions have continued to emerge. In June, a senior Defense official traveling with Rumsfeld earned Rice's ire when he told reporters -- on condition of anonymity -- that the administration might soon take the North Korean issue to the U.N. Security Council.
The first three negotiating rounds were carefully staged events, with lengthy statements read by all sides and little real effort to move beyond prearranged talking points. Advocates of a tough approach during Bush's first term were pleased with the lack of content, certain that North Korean behavior would persuade other nations to join in a harder line against Pyongyang.
Rice, in an interview with Japan's Nippon Television on Tuesday, acknowledged that North Korea's arsenal had grown during this stalemate. "These talks have had an unfortunate pattern, which is that we meet for a couple of days, they break up, really nothing has been achieved, and we wait three months or six months or in this case another year until the talks resume, and during that period of time North Korea is improving its nuclear capability," Rice said. "Well, that's really not acceptable."
The chief U.S. negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill, a career Foreign Service officer who mediated in the Balkans, believes he has won significant leeway to negotiate a deal at the talks, a senior U.S. official said. Conservatives in the administration say they trust Hill's ability to drive a hard bargain -- support that Kelly, his predecessor, never achieved.