In capitals throughout the world, a search is under way for a diplomatic solution to the North Korea nuclear crisis. One key point appears to be far from resolved: North Korea's demand for a non-aggression treaty with Washington and the United States' refusal to sign one.
Diplomatic efforts to resolve the dispute over North Korea's nuclear ambitions are stumbling over how to get the United States and North Korea to engage in direct talks. Both sides say they are willing, but they have found no common ground on terms.
North Korea has consistently demanded a non-aggression treaty with the United States, saying it fears an attack from U.S. forces.
President Bush has stressed that the United States has no intention of using force to resolve this issue. Washington has, in recent weeks, suggested it would even be willing to consider some form of security guarantee. But there is no possibility of a non-aggression treaty because U.S. lawmakers are mistrustful of the North Korean leadership and a treaty requires congressional ratification.
The United States points to the North's previous violations of nuclear agreements, most recently the Agreed Framework deal, signed nine years ago, in which Pyongyang pledged to give up its nuclear weapons ambitions in exchange for energy aid.
Scott Snyder, the Korea representative for the Asia Foundation, a research group partly funded by the U.S. government, explains one of the reasons Washington views the demand as unacceptable: it would set a difficult precedent. "If they sign a non-aggression treaty with North Korea, then literally every other country in the world would be lining up to sign that kind of treaty," he said. "Depending on the circumstances, one might see it as tying one's hands in terms of foreign policy."
The current dispute began in October, when the United States said Pyongyang acknowledged it was developing nuclear weapons in violation of the 1994 Agreed Framework pact. In response, Washington and its allies suspended shipments of the fuel aid Pyongyang needs to generate power.
North Korea, in turn, expelled U.N. inspectors, reactivated frozen nuclear facilities and pulled out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that prevents nuclear weapons development.
Many analysts have speculated as to why North Korea is pressing the issue now. Some say U.S. preparations for war against Iraq and threats to oust Saddam Hussein from power have greatly unnerved the North Korean leadership. President Bush has branded both states, along with Iran, as part of an "axis of evil" - nations trying to develop weapons of mass of destruction.
Other policy analysts suggest that Pyongyang believes sparking a second security threat while the U.S. military is gearing up for a major conflict in the Middle East will quickly push Washington toward talks to resolve the dispute with the North.
Still others argue that, despite a constant barrage of angry rhetoric on its state-run media, Pyongyang wants to improve relations with the United States.
They say its repeated pledges to freeze its mass destruction weapons program should be tested with some sort of agreement.
But if the United States were ever to accept the North's demand for a non-aggression pact, Washington would have to reconsider the 37,000 U.S. troops deployed in the South.
The troops are there to offer protection in case the North attacks, as it did in 1950, when it started the Korean War. While that conflict ended five decades ago with a cease-fire, no peace treaty was signed. To this day, the two Koreas remain technically at war.
Choi Choon-heum, an analyst with the Korean Institute of National Unification, says the American troops are vital to keeping the peace. He says a non-aggression treaty with the North could, in theory, force a U.S. withdrawal. "I think so far and in the near future, the U.S. presence in South Korea is critical and crucial to have stability on the Korean Peninsula," he said. "Also to promote dialogue between North and South Korea and the U.S. and North Korea. That's why I think the U.S. forces in South Korea are needed."
But Mr. Snyder of the Asia Foundation says a compromise solution remains a possibility. He envisions a non-aggression clause as part of a broad diplomatic solution. "Just because they ask for a non-aggression treaty does not mean that is the only thing that would be acceptable to them," said Mr. Snyder. "I think the main issue here is security assurances or guarantees that the United States will not undertake to destabilize or threaten the existence of North Korea."
John Bolton, the U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control, recently told journalists that some sort of assurance, while falling short of a full-blown treaty, was one idea under consideration in Washington. He said that if putting such a pledge "on a piece of paper is important, diplomacy can find a way to do it." But he added that the precise mechanism has yet to be decided.