Seoul, South Korea The North Korean nuclear issue is lurching inexorably toward another moment of crisis. It is a crisis no one wants -- except maybe the North Koreans.
Everyone else would be content to keep alive the fiction that there is a continuing negotiation -- the so-called six-party talks to roll back North Korea's nuclear weapons program by diplomatic means.
The Chinese, who host these talks, do not want to be seen as failures in their role as the mediators of this conflict.
Here in South Korea, the government would love to turn its focus to a shaky economy. An escalation of tensions from their difficult northern brothers is the last thing it needs.
And the Bush administration has its sights set on other targets, such as Iran and Syria, not to mention Iraq. While its enthusiasm for sitting down at the table with the North Korean dictatorship of Kim Jong Il has always been minimal, keeping the talks going preserves the illusion that something is being done.
Unfortunately for all of these governments, the North Koreans have, once again, turned over the table.
A few weeks ago, everyone was optimistic that Pyongyang, after an absence of nearly eight months, was about to announce resumption of the six-party talks, which also include Japan and Russia. Instead, on Feb. 10, the North Koreans suspended the bargaining, pointing to signs that, as in Iraq, President Bush remained intent on regime change, not denuclearization.
They proclaimed, in the clearest wording to date, that they already had "manufactured" nuclear weapons. It removed another layer of what a senior South Korean official calls "manageable ambiguity" about the North Korean program. As long as everyone can credibly deny that there is clear proof the weapons exist, they can justify the less-than-urgent pace of their diplomacy.
The Chinese sent a delegation to Pyongyang anyway to try to drag their recalcitrant ally back. They carried sticks -- hints they may close down border traffic -- and carrots -- possibly increased oil shipments. In return, they got a public statement by the mercurial Kim.
We will come back to the talks, Kim said in essence, but only when we are convinced, by words and actions, that the Bush administration is not intent on overthrowing my regime. South Korean officials rushed to embrace Kim's wording as a positive shift, a view echoed here by U.S. officials.
But, as South Korean officials admit privately, what Kim said is no different from what was said two weeks ago. Pyongyang still claims to need something from Washington as a "condition" for returning to the table.
The Chinese express confidence that talks will resume shortly, but they urge "flexibility" on the part of both North Korea and the United States. Privately, Chinese officials are urging the Bush administration to respond to Kim.
Analysts here talk about providing Kim with a face-saving excuse to return to the table -- a declaration from Bush or Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that the United States has "no hostile intent" toward North Korea, or that it accepts "peaceful coexistence." Those phrases, they say, more clearly state a willingness to accept the legitimacy of the Pyongyang regime as a negotiating partner.
Negotiators from Japan, the United States and South Korea met here Saturday to plan their next step, but Bush officials signaled they have no plans to yield to the North's conditions. Seoul also is not eager to challenge that stance.
"There should be no price tag for attending the talks," a senior South Korean foreign ministry official told me. "The U.S. did their part."
The Chinese may succeed in organizing another round of talks -- but it might be better if they fail. The collapse of the illusion of talks may be the only way to get to real negotiations.
The Bush administration might finally have to decide whether it is ready to accept the continued existence of the North Korean regime as a price for removing its nuclear weapons.
Pyongyang will finally have to decide if it is willing to give up the nukes -- a choice it has skillfully avoided through these non-negotiations. And a crisis might also compel the South Korean government to use its desire to engage the North as real leverage by freezing the economic openings that have been forged. In the end, no deal may be possible. But the sooner we find that out -- one way or another -- the better.
Daniel Sneider is foreign affairs columnist for the San Jose Mercury News.