North Korea: Confront or Engage?
From Mike Chinoy
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Even with Iraq on the front burner, dealing with North Korea's increasingly hostile stance has become one of the Bush administration's biggest foreign policy headaches.
North Korea recently announced it is reactivating its uranium- enriching program in response to a U.S. decision to halt economic and fuel aid to the communist country.
"I think the North Korean pursuit of weapons of mass destruction across the board is frankly just as troubling as Iraq," U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton told CNN.
And the interception of Scud missiles on a ship from North Korea off Yemen has only underscored the challenge.
Opinion in Washington remains sharply divided over how to deal with the regime in Pyongyang.
"You have a camp that is very, very determined to confront what they see as, call it the 'axis of evil,' call it 'rogue states.' And another camp that says we're never going to get anywhere by trying to further isolate a regime that is already the most isolated on the planet," Jon Wolfstahl of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told CNN.
The hardliners include many of those who were skeptical of going through the UN on Iraq.
They argue that North Korea's actions negate a 1994 deal under which Pyongyang froze a previous nuclear program in return for American economic and diplomatic concessions.
"It's dead. It's going nowhere," Larry Wortzel of the Heritage Foundation says.
Further complicating the problem is the fact that North Korea made one or two plutonium-based nuclear bombs in the early 1990s, according to the CIA.
Another fact is that North Korea's nuclear rival and neighbor Seoul hosts some 37,000 U.S. troops -- making them an easy target for North Korean artillery.
The North Koreans asked the Clinton administration for $3 billion in economic aid in return for halting missile exports. But this time, the Bush administration refuses to negotiate with Pyongyang until it completely abandons its nuclear program.
Some in the State Department and influential Republican Party moderates fear abandoning the 1994 deal will only lead North Korea to revive its plutonium program.
"So I think it's very important that we maintain that agreement if at all possible," said Senator Richard Lugar.
Well aware of the consequences of a war in Northeast Asia, the Bush administration has so far moved cautiously.
But the basic direction is clear, a strategy of negotiations and agreements with North Korea replaced by a policy of containment and isolation.