Poised to unleash war on Iraq, the Bush administration is under siege at home and abroad over its failure to ease the growing North Korean nuclear crisis.
By Geraldine Carroll
in Washington DC
Critics say the Stalinist North is far more dangerous than Saddam Hussein, and are worried by President George W Bush's refusal to order direct talks with its leader Kim Jong-il.
Mr Bush is also being accused of standing by as Pyongyang prepares to crank up a reprocessing plant at Yongbyon which could churn out up to six nuclear bombs by midsummer, according to CIA estimates.
Mr Bush has called Mr Kim "evil" and "a dwarf"
William Perry, a former defence secretary who supported the Clinton administration's policy of engagement with the North, has a dire warning for Mr Bush.
"The proposed policy of isolation and containment will not work. It can
hardly isolate North Korea more than they are already isolated," he said.
And for Americans still traumatised by the horror of September 11, he warned that with Pyongyang's proliferation record, North Korean plutonium could find its way into the hands of terrorists.
The White House is under increasing pressure following US media reports that the administration has resigned itself to a nuclear North Korea.
We have a number of diplomatic initiatives under way, some of them very, very quietly under way
Secretary of State Colin Powell
In a congressional hearing on Thursday, Secretary of State Colin Powell launched a damage control effort.
"The position of the United States is we don't want to see nuclear weapons in the Korean Peninsula," he said.
Despite refusing direct talks with Pyongyang, Mr Powell said the Bush
administration was actively seeking ways to address the issue.
"We have a number of diplomatic initiatives under way, some of them very, very quietly under way," he said.
But US efforts to convene a regional forum on the crisis, including China and Russia, have so far appeared to make no progress.
Mr Bush himself did little to still criticism in a prime time news
conference on Thursday night, simply repeating that North Korea was not a US problem alone.
"This is a regional issue. We've got a stake as to whether North Korea has a nuclear weapon. China clearly has a stake as to whether or not North Korea has a nuclear weapon," he said.
The North could build five or six new nuclear weapons within months
US officials see China and Russia as key to pressuring Pyongyang. But Beijing and Moscow want direct US-North Korean talks and have balked at a regional strategy.
The Bush administration says that talking to Mr Kim's regime would simply be a reward for "bad behaviour", his breaching of a 1994
anti-nuclear deal with the US.
But critics of the administration point out that Mr Bush's determination to use diplomacy to stop North Korea acquiring weapons of mass destruction sits at odds with the policy against Iraq.
There are also fears that allowing North Korea to go nuclear could ignite a domino effect.
Democrat Senator Carl Levin said Mr Bush could "send a horrendous message not just in Asia, but also to Iran and to other countries that are contemplating nuclear programmes."
Analysts are particularly worried that Japan may feel compelled to match North Korea's nuclear aspirations, causing a suspicious China to look to augment its own modest atomic arsenal. That could prompt new atomic power grabs in chronically unstable South Asia.
North Korea has carved a fault line right through the US administration, split between moderates led by Mr Powell in the State Department and hawks marshalled by Vice-President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Mr Bush has given indications that the issue is personal, telling US
journalist Bob Woodward in a recent book that he "loathes" Kim Jong-il.
The US president's outspokenness has damaged US relations with South Korea, which under former President Kim Dae-jung pioneered a "sunshine policy" of engaging the North.
New South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun is expected in Washington soon for talks which will set the tone for the next two years of US-South Korean ties.
But US officials say privately that neither side is yet ready for the meeting. They want to ensure that the encounter is tightly scripted, in contrast to a disastrous meeting between Mr Bush and Kim Dae-jung which took place in March 2001 when neither side was really ready.
Mr Bush's war plans could also push the meeting back into Spring.
More and more the equation seems to be coming down to a simple choice:
Either the US president will have to do a deal with what he sees as the devil and decide to approve talks with North Korea - or see the isolated Communist state acquire a doomsday arsenal of nuclear