Is North Korea softening its stance on the crisis over its nuclear development, or sticking to old demands? South Korea is assessing whether a recent statement by the communist nation signals a willingness to compromise, or confront.
Diplomats and other experts with years of experience in trying to figure out secretive North Korea are more cautious than optimistic about the latest turn in the nuclear standoff, which has dragged on for seven months.
North Korea issued a harsh statement yesterday, warning South Korea of "unimaginable disaster" if it confronts the communist state.
The North is angry about a US-South Korean summit in Washington at which the two allies agreed that North Korea must abandon its nuclear ambitions.
North Korea this weekend made its clearest reference yet to the possibility of talks involving a number of nations, a key US demand. Washington says talks on the nuclear issue should involve regional players, including South Korea and Japan.
However, North Korea did not agree outright to "multilateral" talks, saying such a format would be possible only after one-on-one meetings with the US. But the statement was different from most of its other pronouncements, which insisted only on talks with Washington.
Kim Sung-han, an expert in North Korean affairs in Seoul, said North Korea had not softened its position.
"That is the typical North Korean posture since the end of last year," he said. Pyongyang is saying that if US-North Korean talks make progress, "then the rest of the others can join in," Kim said.
A senior South Korean government official agreed.
More of the same
"It is true that the tone has softened," the official said on customary condition of anonymity. "But basically, they are repeating their demand on direct talks with Washington, so it cannot be said that there is a big change in their stance."
Another government official was more upbeat.
"They seemed to have judged that if they keep insisting on direct talks only, there is high possibility that talks will not take place, so they are showing flexibility in their position," said the official, who also did not want to be identified.
North Korea and the US held talks last month in Beijing with Chinese officials present. At those meetings, North Korea said it had nuclear weapons, but would be willing to give up its nuclear and missile programs in exchange for economic aid and security guarantees, US officials say.
The nuclear dispute flared in October, when US officials said North Korea admitted it had a clandestine nuclear program.
No. 1 Threat
North Korea views Washington as the No. 1 threat to its sovereignty, as well as a potentially rich source of economic aid. So Pyongyang could calculate that it has most to gain from a one-on-one deal with the US.
Bilateral talks with the world's only superpower would also enhance North Korea's prestige, while talks that include US allies could present an unwelcome, united front against the North.
The US-led alliance in the face of the North Korean threat is already gaining cohesion. On May 14, US President George W. Bush and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun agreed at a summit to seek a peaceful, diplomatic solution to the nuclear crisis, but warned of "further steps" against North Korea if tension escalates.
On Friday, Bush and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, meeting at Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, warned North Korea that any escalation of tensions would prompt "tougher measures."