Stephen Bosworth, the diplomat President Barack Obama appointed to the thankless task of trying to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear-weapons program, got quite a reception when he arrived on his first official visit to Seoul this week. The North Korean government in Pyongyang shut down the last military communication line between the two countries on the divided peninsula, temporarily halted all transit to and from a special industrial zone just north of the border and declared that if the U.S. or Japan should try to shoot down a long-range missile the North is expected to test soon, it would retaliate with a military strike of its own. "I have no illusions about what I've agreed to try to deal with," Bosworth told reporters. "It's a very difficult mandate."
That's putting it mildly. Many diplomats in East Asia believe that getting the North to stand down its nukes may be a lost cause. It's easy, given the timing, to attribute Pyongyang's recent bellicose rhetoric as standard stuff: the North always ratchets up tensions whenever the U.S. and South Korea hold major military exercises, as they are doing this week. And many North Korea watchers in Seoul believe the recent tone is simply intended to soften up a new Administration in Washington. Again, fairly predictable for the North Korean regime. (See pictures of North Koreans going to the polls.)
But it's not clear that the usual diplomatic arc with Pyongyang public fits intended to strengthen its bargaining position for an eventual return to the table is in play right now. If in the next few weeks the North launches what it terms a "satellite intended for peaceful purposes" in truth, a long-range missile capable of reaching Alaska it will be the North's most provocative act since it tested a nuke in the autumn of 2006. Bosworth and, earlier, his boss, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have already beseeched the Chinese to intervene with the North, and diplomats in Seoul say that Beijing has done so. If Pyongyang ignores that counsel, says Victor Cha, former director of Asian affairs on President Geroge W. Bush's National Security Council, the Obama Administration will face two key choices: go to the United Nations to seek broad international sanctions against Pyongyang or reimpose the U.S.'s own financial sanctions, which infuriated the North's leadership precisely because they effectively cut off Pyongyang's access to the international financial system. (Recall that only after the Bush Administration agreed to drop those sanctions did the North return to the six-party nuclear talks in early 2007.) "This is a delicate decision for Obama, and it may be headed straight for him," says one Asian diplomat. "Any move toward sanctions means things go into the deep freeze diplomatically."
The other reason some wonder whether the recent saber-rattling from the North is standard operating procedure is murkier: questions still surround the health of the North's Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il. Kim suffered a stroke late last summer, and since then he has been seen in public even more rarely than usual. On Sunday he was photographed "voting" in North Korea's sham parliamentary elections, and he looked noticeably older and thinner than he did just six months ago. There are conflicting opinions about his level of involvement in managing the country since the stroke. (See pictures of Kim Jong Il.)
The key figure emerging now, Seoul-based North Korea analysts believe, is Kim's brother-in-law Chang Sung-taek. Chang is close to North Korea's politically powerful military he has two brothers who are generals. If anything, analysts believe, the military's influence has increased in recent months. The problem with that, for both Obama and the rest of the outside world, is that there is little to no evidence that North Korea's generals want to make a deal on their nuclear program now, later or ever. The best way they could signal that point would be to launch the Taepodong II long-range missile.
With reporting by Stephen Kim / Seoul