U.S. officials headed to Asia for ‘intensive’ talks on North Korea

An image from North Korean television on April 9 shows leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang.
A high-level U.S. delegation is going to Asia for "intensive consultations" on what North Korea’s increasingly alarming behavior means for U.S. security alliances in the region, senior administration officials tell CNN.

The trip will spin off Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ previously announced trip to a regional security conference in Singapore and consultations in Tokyo, Japan, the senior officials said. After those stops, a delegation led by Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg is expected to travel to Beijing, Seoul and Moscow to discuss how the U.S. partners in the six-party talks should deal with North Korea, the senior officials said. The State Department announced Thursday that Steinberg will accompany Gates to Singapore for the security conference, and then to Tokyo “for consultations with senior Japanese officials on a range of bilateral, regional and international issues.” Defense ministers from Japan and South Korea are expected to be at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. The senior officials said that Steinberg then will lead a delegation to the other three stops. He is expected to be accompanied by Undersecretary of Defense Michelle Flournoy, Special Representative for North Korea Policy Stephen Bosworth, and Jeffrey Bader, senior director for Asian affairs on the National Security Council, the officials said. While North Korea is unpredictable, Pyongyang has said publicly it would conduct a nuclear test and missile tests and has proved true to its word.

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Washington still refuses to accept North Korea as a full-fledged nuclear power. But officials said the Obama administration is having serious discussions about whether the nation’s actions this week have constituted a “tipping point,” offering the world final proof about its intentions to development what it calls a “nuclear deterrent.” “People are rightfully asking whether this is a game changer,” one senior official said about North Korea’s recent antics. “Are they saying, as they have been signaling, ‘We are going to be a nuclear power come hell or high water and you will have to deal with us from that position’ Is this for real and how do we deal with this These are disturbing circumstances which will require a different posture.” Officials say the discussions will go beyond the resolution being crafted at the U.N. Security Council and will address the determination and capability of nations to get tough on North Korea. The goal, they say, is to persuade Pyongyang that going back to the negotiating table is the only option. They say all scenarios will be put on the table, including strengthening resolve to interdict ships bound for and coming from North Korea, as well as tougher economic and trade sanctions to curb Pyongyang’s access to income. “If we accept that this is what they are doing, will China’s position be the same” the senior official asked. “Russia will also be key. Are these countries ready to really put the screws to North Korea” South Korea and Japan will also be asked to think beyond their rhetoric and country-specific issues, such as the Japanese abductee issue, to think about the larger issues of security in the region. “This all makes us ask what this means for our alliance relationship,” the senior official said. “We have to discuss how we meet the threat without creating a panic with what we are doing.” Seriously complicating matters is the health of ailing North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Officials say no one knows who is running North Korea, one of the most opaque and mysterious countries in the world. There is also no clear line of succession in place once Kim dies. Officials say the country’s internal dynamics are a large, if not the critical, component driving North Korea’s actions, which is particularly concerning because the future of the regime is an aspect in which no nation, including the China, can do anything to alter the equation. That means that even the most strenuous international diplomacy might influence North Korean behavior only on the margins and will have little effect on how this situation ultimately plays out.