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North Korean Nuclear Situation Worrisome, Analysts Say

As the world focuses on the U.S.-led war in Iraq, worries over how to deal with North Korea and its nuclear ambitions continue to simmer in the background. North Korea has steered clear of major provocations since the war began, but continues to send out signals that the security situation on the Korean Peninsula could deteriorate.

It is a question being asked all over the world: after Iraq, what will happen with North Korea?

Diplomatic initiatives have been intense. In February, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell traveled to Tokyo, Beijing and Seoul for talks on the matter. Seoul sent Foreign Minister Yoon Young-kwan to Washington in late March, and then on to Tokyo. In early April, the South Koreans dispatched an envoy to Beijing and Moscow, Pyongyang's two closest allies, hoping to find common ground on the issue.

The activity has been prompted by the actions of the unpredictable Stalinist leadership in Pyongyang. Last October, Washington said North Korea had admitted to having a secret program to enrich uranium. Such a program is in violation of a 1994 agreement between Washington and Pyongyang, which aimed to halt any move by the North to develop nuclear weapons.

Pyongyang reacted to Washington's disclosure by saying it was no longer bound by the 1994 pact. It has since reactivated a nuclear reactor that had been shut down under the 1994 agreement, expelled United Nations nuclear inspectors, and renounced the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It has launched anti-ship missiles into waters off the Korean Peninsula, shadowed an unarmed American spy plane in international airspace, and repeatedly defended its right to develop ballistic missiles.

James Lilley, the former U.S. Ambassador to China and South Korea, says these actions are primarily attempts by the impoverished state to capture Washington's attention.

"This time the objective seems to be to get into direct talks with the United States and to somehow get the money, food and oil rolling again by provocation and extortion, which has worked very well for them in the past," he said. " They are trying to resurrect that, because they really do not know what else to do."

North Korea's string of moves had many analysts convinced that Pyongyang would take advantage of Washington's preoccupation with Iraq by staging provocative acts when the war began: test firing a medium or long range missile, for example, or even conducting an underground nuclear test.

However, Japanese and American government sources say they have no indication of any such moves, and say they have not noticed any unusual military maneuvers in North Korea in recent weeks.

Choi Choon-heum, an analyst at the Korean Institute for National Reunification, thinks North Korea will watch how the war develops before deciding how to move.

"I think North Korea will wait and see," he said. " North Koreans are very cautious not to antagonize or annoy the United States. I think North Korea will continue to get information about the Iraq war and will have some preparations, but no particular action."

For now, North Korea's state run media keep up a steady barrage of angry rhetoric, denouncing the recent exercises held by U.S. and South Korean troops and condemning Seoul's decision to send non-combat troops to support the Iraq war.

The North also has said it will make no concessions to Washington, which demands that Pyongyang abandon its nuclear weapons program. North Korean media say that in the North's view, Baghdad compromised by allowing United Nations weapons inspectors into Iraq, and paid for its concessions with a U.S. invasion.

Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions will come under greater international scrutiny soon. On April 9, one day before North Korea's withdrawal from the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty becomes final, the U.N. Security Council will debate Pyongyang's decision to flout its international obligations. The United States has urged the council to rebuke North Korea.

China, one of the Security Council's five permanent members, has so far refused to take a strong stand on the issue, but there are indications that Beijing might be starting to act. China is North Korea's top supplier of food and oil, which would seem to give it some leverage. In March, Beijing briefly cut off oil supplies to North Korea, possibly a signal of its displeasure.

However, diplomats like James Lilley, the former U.S. ambassador, say Beijing's influence over Pyongyang is limited.

"When the Chinese and North Koreans talk about the annual shipments from China to North Korea, there is a lot of rough bargaining that goes on," he explained. " So the Chinese, if they are displeased, can hold a harder line. On the other hand the North Koreans can play what they think are their trump cards, namely if you do not give us what we need we may turn to Taiwan, or if you start to not deliver on the food, how would you like four million refugees in China instead of 20,000 and that wakes them up, too."

In its pronouncements, Pyongyang is becoming ever more confrontational.

It announced late last month that it is boosting military spending, despite a failing economy and persistent food shortages.

But there have also been signs that North Korea wants a dialogue with Washington. It invited two prominent American foreign policy experts from the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations to visit Pyongyang this month. Three North Korean envoys, including the ambassador to the United Nations, recently took part in a security conference in California. Organizers say that on the sidelines, they met informally with visiting U.S. State Department officials and discussed what forums might be appropriate for higher level discussions.

The North is demanding one-on-one talks with the United States but the Bush administration says discussions must include the regional nations, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia. If a dialogue will begin remains unclear, but all sides are still saying dialogue is the best way to resolve the dispute.