WASHINGTON – After weeks of war cries, North Korea has options to dial down tensions with the U.S. and South Korea, but it's unlikely to be tempted by Washington's offer to restart negotiations on its nuclear program.
Despite Pyongyang's threats of attack, South Korea's new government has offered it talks on the joint industrial park shut by the North during the latest standoff. And a U.S. decision to postpone a long-range missile test this month could provide a pretext for the North to declare a symbolic victory.
Through it all, the U.S. has made clear the door remains open for talks — a point hammered home by Secretary of State John Kerry on every stop on his just-completed trip to Northeast Asia.
The problem is the offer of talks has a precondition the government of Kim Jong Un won't swallow.
The U.S. is adamant that North recommit itself to giving up nuclear weapons, as it did in a 2005 agreement arising from the so-called six-party talks: aid-for-disarmament negotiations hosted by China, and also joined by Japan, Russia and South Korea, that have been suspended for four years.
Pyongyang has made it increasingly clear it won't negotiate away its atomic arsenal, which it views as a guarantee that Kim's authoritarian regime won't go the same way as those in Iraq and Libya that were toppled in U.S.-backed invasions.
For now, it's still far from clear whether the security crisis on and around the Korean Peninsula has abated.
The belligerent rhetoric pumped out by North Korea has subsided a little in recent days, as the country commemorates the 101st birthday anniversary of founding leader Kim Il Sung.
But it has rejected Seoul's offer of talks, and could yet rock the boat by test-firing two medium-range missiles reportedly readied on its east coast that could be launched over Japan. That would risk another round of condemnation in the U.N. Security Council, which last month approved its toughest sanctions yet on the North in response to its latest nuclear test.
Even in the feverish climate stoked by North Korea's threats, some policy experts are urging the Obama administration to show more flexibility in its dealings with the Kim regime.
Michael O'Hanlon, director of foreign policy research at the Brookings Institution think tank, said the goal now should be to contain North Korea from expanding its nuclear arsenal before it presents a much greater security threat, rather than demanding an immediate commitment to zero nuclear weapons.
"If they really reactivate their (plutonium) reactor and expand whatever uranium enrichment capability they have and they go into business of making nuclear weapons by the dozen for their own purposes or for sale, we have a whole different ball game," O'Hanlon told a seminar in Washington on Monday. "Given where we are, we have to be realistic in the first steps."
North Korea probably already has enough fissile material for about half a dozen bombs and, according to some assessments, may be able to mount a nuclear warhead on shorter-range missiles that could target South Korea and Japan. It is still widely believed to be years away from perfecting a nuclear-tipped missile that could strike the U.S.
Evans Revere, a former senior State Department official, said the North's vice foreign minister, Ri Yong Ho, made clear a year ago that Pyongyang wanted acceptance, if not formal recognition, of its status as a nuclear weapons state.
"You need to deal with us as we are, not as you wish us to be," Revere recounted Ri as saying at informal talks in New York that took place in March 2012 during a brief warming in U.S.-North Korea relations, when it appeared a restart of the six-nation talks appeared within reach.
North Korea has since taken steps to formalize its nuclear status. Recently, the ruling Korean Workers' Party announced its two top priorities as building the impoverished nation's economy and its "nuclear armed forces."
But allowing North Korea to slip away from the commitment to abandon nuclear weapons would set a bad precedent for international nonproliferation efforts and could trigger a nuclear arms race in Northeast Asia — a prospect that would alarm China too.
Revere said the latest crisis had made acceptance of a nuclear North Korea even more unconscionable. Its threats to strike at the U.S. and its allies had shown what Pyongyang was willing to do with the ballistic missile and nuclear weapons capabilities it is developing, he said.
So while Kerry told journalists on his trip that the U.S. was prepared to reach out, and even under the right circumstances make a grand overture to North Korea's leader, he stuck firm to the condition that North Korea must first show it's committed to denuclearization.
What has changed some is China's stance toward its troublesome ally and its declining appetite to defend its provocative behavior.
The North Korean regime is sustained by Chinese food and fuel, and growing Chinese trade and investment. But Beijing has been displeased by Kim's lack of outreach and his February nuclear test. It signed on to the toughest U.N. sanctions yet on Pyongyang, and Chinese authorities have since stepped up customs inspections and checks on suspect financial transactions by North Korean banks.
Yet China's strategic interests in having an ally on its southern border haven't changed. That means it won't abandon Pyongyang and cut the economic lifeline it provides. And while China does not want North Korea to build a nuclear arsenal, it's unlikely to share Washington's view on how to rein in the young Kim.
"From China's point of view, greater foreign pressure is highly likely to increase North Korea's resolve to acquire a credible nuclear deterrent," Gregory Kulacki, a China expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, wrote in a commentary.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Matthew Pennington covers U.S.-Asian affairs for The Associated Press in Washington.