WASHINGTON, D.C. – A modern timeline of relations between the United States and North Korea is dotted with diplomatic fits and starts, economic sanctions, promises of understanding, high points of small successes and low points of slammed doors, exiled weapons inspectors and exhaustive sets of demands.
So, as foreign policy experts will attest, it should be no surprise that the latest news from Pyongyang — that it is preparing to test launch a long-range ballistic missile that could hit the United States — has been followed by a request from the Communist country for direct negotiations with Washington.
"Dealing with the North Koreans is probably the most problematic challenge there is," said Daniel Sneider, associate director of research at the Shorenstein Asia Pacific Research Center at Stanford University.
"Now they are compelling us to pay attention. That may be why they are doing what they are doing," Sneider said. "Their negotiating style is an escalatory one."
Foreign policy analysts, as well as lawmakers on Capitol Hill, have had varying reactions to North Korea's latest salvo and offer divergent prescriptions about how to recover from the diplomatic breakdown and get Pyongyang back on the global partnership track.
One proposal comes from Ashton B. Carter, assistant secretary of defense under President Clinton, and former Clinton Defense Secretary William J. Perry. They have suggested the United States launch a pre-emptive strike to stop the missile test.
"After September 11th, you can't only worry about the North Koreans having the bomb. You have to worry about them selling it to someone else, or collapsing and the bomb coming into the hands of terrorists. We know ... that every time a nuclear weapon is created on this planet its creator won't necessarily be the user. It is not safe to let North Korea just run wild," Carter told FOX News on Sunday.
Others suggest the United States continue perfecting its missile defense system and pursue the diplomatic option.
"You've got to swallow it," syndicated columnist and FOX News contributor Charles Krauthammer said of North Korea's missile bravado. "You can't launch a war against them."
Weighting Members in the 'Axis of Evil'
With all the discussion about engaging Iran in multi-party talks over its own nuclear ambitions, some analysts point out that North Korea, a designated prong in the 'axis of evil' identified by President Bush in 2002, has received considerably less attention than its infamous associates, Iran and Iraq.
"We haven't had a North Korea policy for the last five years," said Brian Katulis, who worked in the Clinton White House and State Department, and is now a fellow with the liberal Center for American Progress.
Katulis said "hardliners" in the current administration have kept negotiations from going forward, and he blames them for a double standard in which North Korean President Kim Jong Il has been largely ignored. "I think this has led us to a situation where to a great extent, we have lost control of events."
But other analysts say the Clinton administration is at fault for the pattern of ignoring and then coddling North Korea. Clinton officials engaged in a number of agreements with North Korea in the 1990s, most notably, a 1994 pact in which North Korea promised it would stop its nuclear weapons program in exchange for an end to economic sanctions and other incentives.
That agreement broke down by 1998 when it became obvious North Korea was not compliant. Pyongyang tested a long-range ballistic missile over mainland Japan, increasing the already tense relations between those two countries.
The rest of the Clinton era was marked by more fruitless talks, tiny successes and setbacks, including several instances where North Korean companies were penalized for selling weapons material and technology to Pakistan and Iran, those critics say. In 1999, Pyongyang unilaterally declared a moratorium on its missile tests.
"We should have been paying quite a bit more attention," beginning in the 1990s, said James Goodby, a former ambassador and arms reduction expert under the Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations.
Goodby said North Korea continues to bully its neighbors and extort money and goodwill from the rest of the world. The Bush administration can claim few successes with Pyongyang after years of on-again, off-again six-party talks that have included Russia, China, Japan and South Korea that were meant to show a united international front against North Korean aggression.
By now, experts estimate North Korea has enough material to build five to 10 nuclear bombs. Washington insists that any incentives offered to North Korea by the United States must be met with promises from Pyongyang to dismantle its nuclear weapons program
"The North Koreans have been leaned on and they have resisted that leaning," Krauthammer said.
Gordon Adams, director of security policy studies at George Washington University, said "it's not like we haven't been paying attention or engaged," but the "sticky wicket" in this case is how to conduct negotiations. Like Iran, North Korea wants a one-on-one with Washington and so far, they are not going to get it, though that situation that may have to change.
"[The administration] is going to have to accept it, or keep having problems with these countries," Adams said.
Many lawmakers and members of the Bush administration respond to North Korea's prospective missile test by saying direct negotiations would be rewarding "brinksmanship." To date, Washington has not acquiesced to requests for direct talks — and after the latest missile boast, that's even less likely to happen, say administration officials.
"You don't initiate talks by threatening to launch an ICBM," or intercontinental ballistic missile, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton said last week.
"It's not a way to produce a conversation because if you acquiesce in aberrant behavior you simply encourage the repetition of it, which we're obviously not going to do," he added.
But critics point out that Iran seems to be behaving in similar fashion, and in response, Tehran has been offered a package of economic incentives.
Adams said administration officials "aren’t fools," and they recognize the differences between Iran and its strategic importance to the Persian Gulf region, and North Korea, which is much more isolated.
"Iran is a more troublesome issue because they are in the middle of a region we are deeply engaged in," he said. "The U.S. is bound to be more interested in what Iran is doing in general."
Foreign policy experts say North Korea's intense isolation, closed society and totalitarian nature — for years it has been blamed for starving its own people — have made talks very difficult.
"There are no cats and dogs alive in there. It's headed by a nut job and they are in absolute poverty, not a bad idea of using food as a weapon," said retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Burton Moore, a FOX News contributor.
Despite recent improvements to living conditions — thanks to Chinese aid — and moves toward limited market reform, North Korea still remains extremely isolated, which means it is difficult to have any rapprochements, said Sneider. He called North Korea's easy willingness to brag about weapons capabilities and threaten missile launches a "dangerous game."
"It's a miscalculation, a misreading," he said. "It's a product of their isolation."
Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., one of Congress' foremost experts on North Korea, called it "a central pillar of the regime to remain isolated" as well as to convince its people that they face constant threats from abroad.
"It's given Russian diplomats very little leeway, American diplomats very little leeway." he said."The reality is the United States is not a key player. The six party talks will be as strong or as weak as China wants them to be."
Kirk said China is the only country that "controls the destiny" of North Korea because Beijing can talk it down from a looming nuclear crisis. He said he believes China will eventually do that because it does not want Japan to start building up its military in response to perceived threats from North Korea.
In apparent recognition of China's influence, South Korea's foreign minister went to Beijing Monday for talks that are likely to focus on the North Korea missile concern and encouragement of "China to actively persuade North Korea," according to the South's Yonhap news agency.
Nonetheless, the other party members are not sitting idly by. On Sunday, Japanese officials said they would consider "all options," including sanctions, if North Korea launches a missile. A Japanese newspaper also reported in Monday's edition that the United States would deploy three to four surface-to-air interceptor missiles in Okinawa by the end of the year.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.