President Bush set the tone for relations between the United States and North Korea in January 2002 when he listed that communist-led country, along with Iran and Iraq, as part of an "axis of evil." Then, in October 2002, came news that North Korea had re-started its dormant nuclear program and was withdrawing from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.
The United States has refused to negotiate directly with North Korea, instead insisting that the nuclear issue must be resolved through multi-party talks that include China, Russia, South Korea and Japan.
By contrast, other countries in Europe and Asia have been actively engaging Pyongyang on diplomatic, cultural and economic levels. According to The New York Times newspaper, North Korea now has embassies in 41 countries and diplomatic ties with 155. Some analysts worry that if the United States is too intransigent on the nuclear weapons discussions, it could be outflanked diplomatically by North Korea.
But Tomohiko Taniguchi at the Brookings Institution, an independent research group in Washington, says that while North Korea might be reaching out to the international community, it cannot avoid negotiating with the United States and the other countries involved in the six-party talks.
"In terms of trade, North Korea trades with a handful of nations: China, first and foremost, South Korea, Russia, Japan, and to a lesser extent, with the United States," he says. "The United States is sending aid, food and so on to North Korea. So it is vitally important to North Korea to remain on good terms with these countries. And these countries happen to be the countries that constitute the six-party talks."
Just as North Korea finds it must deal with the United States, there are strong incentives, too, for the United States to negotiate with North Korea. Nicholas Eberstadt, a scholar at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, believes the Bush Administration should take a proactive, rather than reactive stance toward North Korea:
"The most important thing for the United States to do in its policy toward North Korea in the beginning of the next Administration is to push forward on the multi-lateral diplomacy channels, the six-party talks for example, while at the same time, indicating that these talks will not be permitted to continue indefinitely. And they will only be pursued if there is some sign of success and that these talks will also be judged to see whether signs of failure are emerging."
Mr. Eberstadt adds that if no progress is made on the six-party talks, the United States will have to consider other avenues toward the nuclear disarmament of North Korea.
But what other avenues might there be? Charles Armstrong, a professor of Korean history at Columbia University in New York, says there are few alternatives. He believes a military option is probably out of the question, at least as long as the situation in Iraq remains problematic, and that the Bush Administration would regard handing the North Korea problem over to the United Nations as too risky.
"In the past when the question of U.N. sanctions have come up, the North Koreans have very clearly declared that this would be considered an act of war," he says. "And in fact, this is what nearly got us into a war with North Korea under the first Clinton Administration in 1994."
Professor Armstrong says that even if the matter were referred to the United Nations, Russia and China would likely veto any move toward an expanded U.N. role. Although the Chinese are working behind the scenes to convince North Korean leaders to be more open about their nuclear program, Charles Armstrong dismisses talk that Beijing could be persuaded to put more pressure on Pyongyang.
"It may be the case that threatening them with the cutoff of oil supplies -- which North Korea is very dependent upon China for -- might move the process along as well," he says. "But Chinese influence on North Korea shouldn’t be exaggerated. It only goes up to a certain point and there’s not that much that China can do to push North Korea to do something that it doesn’t want to do."
Since severe economic sanctions seem to be ruled out, most analysts say that diplomatic talks, whatever form they might take, are the only viable option in the quest to halt North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons.