Washington North Korea's recent rattling of nuclear sabers at the United States is "their way of negotiating," says an influential South Korean analyst. "They think making belligerent threats is how diplomacy works."
Maybe. It is also how blackmail works. Skepticism is in order when dealing with Kim Jong Il and his duplicitous, totalitarian regime, as President Bush and the other hawks in his administration have said all along.
But skepticism is not a self-implementing policy. Piece by piece, a diplomatic strategy for containing North Korea's seemingly irrational and contradictory outbursts is taking shape as Washington, Beijing and Seoul start to work together rather than apart in defusing this dangerous crisis.
The political resolve and military power the Bush administration demonstrated in Iraq now breathes new life into its diplomacy in northeast Asia, where power fosters cooperation. But Washington will also need patience and skill to find a peaceful way out of the North Korean dilemma.
That is part of the message that South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun will bring to the White House later this month for the most important getting-to-know-you session President Bush is likely to have with a foreign leader this year.
Roh (pronounced "no") was elected in December on a left-of-center platform that was openly critical of U.S. policy. He knows less about the United States, which he has never visited, than any of his predecessors. But in office he has absorbed one important fact about Washington: Personal contact counts with this U.S. president.
A disastrous encounter two years ago between a freshly inaugurated Bush and Roh's predecessor, Kim Dae Jung, still hangs like a pall over relations between the two allies. Kim had stubbornly pressed for a meeting as Bush was settling in. Worse, the South Korean used the meeting to lecture Bush on the importance of immediately "engaging" the North Korean regime -- a cause that Secretary of State Colin Powell was also then publicly urging.
When I saw Kim shortly after his White House visit, he gave no sign of having absorbed Bush's deep misgivings and irritation. Kim thought his and Powell's views would prevail. But Bush felt compelled to go public with their differences, and Seoul and Washington have been out of sync on policy ever since.
Roh's May 13-15 visit to Washington will be the moment to repair the damage. The South Koreans "are preparing this visit down to every tiny detail," said a State Department official. "They have understood what happened last time and are determined to avoid new failures to communicate."
One urgent item on Roh's agenda will be a frank discussion of U.S. plans to move quickly after the victory in Iraq to reconfigure its global troop deployments and bases -- including in South Korea, where 37,000 American soldiers are stationed near the frontier with North Korea. Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld would like to redeploy U.S. forces farther south.
But South Korean analysts fear that redeployment right now would be misread by Pyongyang, either as a weakening of the U.S. commitment to Seoul or, conversely, as preparation for a military attack on the north. Either misreading could trigger war.
Roh's past criticism of the U.S. military presence made it easier for him at home to be quietly supportive of the American campaign in Iraq, according to these analysts. The new president, while endorsing engagement and negotiations with Pyongyang, can also be firmer with North Korea than was his predecessor. Roh does not intend to meet with Kim Jong Il until the nuclear stalemate is resolved, or until he is convinced that a summit would bring significant progress toward its resolution.
Instead he will encourage the Bush administration to renew the tripartite talks in Beijing that North Korea disrupted last month with confrontational talk about its nuclear options. China is said to be willing to host a new round of discussion, and North Korea said in a May 1 statement that it "does not think that the talks came to a complete rupture."
The new leaders in Seoul and Beijing want calm -- or at least the appearance of calm -- while they manage tricky political transitions at home. That encourages them to find common ground with Washington wherever they can right now.
The very real danger that North Korea may use renewed talks to buy time to build more nuclear weapons has to be weighed against the advantages the Bush administration can gain by improving U.S. relations with China and South Korea. At this point in this still unfolding international emergency, the case for patience, diplomacy and vigilance makes sense.
-- Jim Hoagland is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.