After months of insisting it would not engage in dialogue with North Korea until Pyongyang halted the reactivation of its nuclear weapons program, the United States now says it is willing to talk to North Korea to help it find ways to meet its international obligations.
A Washington Post reporter said the United States made a subtle change in policy when it announced its offer to talk with North Korea. A New York Times reporter called it an abrupt shift in policy.
Larry Niksch, a specialist on East Asia with the Congressional Research Service, said it was more of a change in diplomatic tactics.
"Until this announcement, the Bush administration had taken the position with regard to dialogue with North Korea that it would not negotiate any new agreement with North Korea dealing with this secret uranium enrichment program that North Korea revealed in October," Mr. Niksch said, "but the administration's diplomatic position also contained a second unstated tenet. And that was that the administration would also not engage in any other kind of dialogue with the North Koreans, outside of or below the level of an actual negotiation." But, he added, the Bush administration is willing to engage in a dialogue but not a full scale negotiation.
Mr. Niksch, who is also a senior advisor on East Asia for Political Risk Services in Syracuse, New York, says parts of the 1994 Agreed Framework that froze North Korea's nuclear program are obviously dead. But other parts can be restored. And he points to North Korea's commitment to abide by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and to bring its nuclear program into compliance with the International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards regime.
"Since these commitments already have been made, you could in a dialogue discuss the timing under which these commitments would be implemented by each side," he said.
The U.S. offer to talk with Pyongyang came after consultations among officials from the United States, Japan and South Korea. South Korea also sent top diplomats to Moscow and Beijing to discuss the problem.
The government in Seoul has pursued what it calls a "sunshine" policy toward North Korea, hoping that contact, cooperation, and economic aid will lead to reconciliation between the North and South. The United States has focused on the problem of North Korea's nuclear program and its history of weapons proliferation. Early in his administration, President Bush suspended talks that were underway during the Clinton administration on North Korea's missile tests and sales. And then, Mr. Bush listed North Korea with Iran and Iraq as part of an axis of evil. For Larry Niksch, the U.S. shift in offering to talk with Pyongyang may have come because of pressure and criticism not only from South Korea, but also China and Russia.
"The bigger picture, too, is that the Bush administration has found itself since the end of December on the diplomatic defensive, with North Korea having the initiative as a result of North Korea's actions in restarting the nuclear installations at Yongbyon," he said. "I think the Bush administration has recognized that these North Korean actions have really placed it on the defensive and in essence have made it more difficult to secure the cooperation from other governments in dealing successfully with North Korea."
Thomas Henriksen, a specialist on U.S. foreign policy at the Hoover Institution in California, said the U.S. offer to talk with Pyongyang does not mean that Washington has changed and is now listening to South Korea. Mr. Henriksen pointed out that for over a decade the United States has been allowing Seoul more freedom of action.
"For example in George Bush, the first administration, he withdrew tactical nuclear weapons from South Korea, at the urging of the South Korean government so that it could better engage the North. The United States went along with that," he went on to say. "I think the policy has been growing, both under the Clinton administration and the second George Bush, to allow the South Koreans a little more freedom."
The director of the East Asia Management Development Center at the University of Michigan, E-Han Kim, said North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is taking advantage of the timing of current events to play South Korea, China and Japan against the United States. And Mr. Kim said President Bush unfortunately fell right into that trap. "I do not disagree with Mr. Bush's statement that North Korea is an evil empire. That's true," he said. "But there is no reason and no purpose in Mr. Bush's public announcement calling for confrontation from North Korea by including them in one of the three axes of evil."
Mr. Kim, who is also a senior research fellow at the William Davidson Institute, said a serious dialogue between the United States and North Korea will be more effective if it's conducted behind the scenes.
Thomas Henriksen said rhetoric on both sides may heat up in the coming months, but he said that will not help North Korea if it continues to make threats against the United States.
"There'll be lots of charges and counter charges. But I think what the North Koreans do by this [is] they further isolate themselves in a world community, because even people who may not always favor the United States see this very bizarre administration threatening all sorts of things." Mr. Henriksen added.
Analysts agree, no matter whether the talks are public or behind the scenes, the difficulty will be in getting North Korea to agree to abandon its nuclear program and allow the return of international weapons inspectors.