AGGRESSIVE rhetoric is flying so furiously between North Korea and the United States over the North's nuclear program that, if words were weapons, the two sides would be at war.
But the recent scare tactics by ``Great Leader'' Kim Il Sung, whose officials warn that ``Seoul will turn into a sea of fire,'' and President Clinton's tough talk of military retaliation have masked the fact that each side so far sees a strong stake in a solution short of war.
What's not being said or done at the moment, say a number of Korea watchers, highlights what is most important in the immediate standoff over incomplete international inspections of the North's nuclear facilities.
President Clinton, distracted by Whitewater woes and his domestic priorities, has yet to lay out to the American people the key US interests in this still-verbal confrontation with a failing Stalinist nation, one that appears bent on joining the nuclear ``club'' as a survival tactic.
So far, Mr. Clinton's record in avoiding major conflict in Haiti, Bosnia, and Somalia serves as a model for the North in what might be possible US actions.
But unlike in those places, the US has 37,000 troops on the front line and a 1954 security treaty with South Korea, an obligation left over from the cold war.
``The administration is adrift,'' says Asia expert Chalmers Johnson at the University of California, San Diego. ``The US went into Korea [in 1950] for global reasons. Now that the cold war is over, for the US to go into Korea would be to go into a civil war.''
An American GI stationed on the demilitarized zone (DMZ) put it more bluntly: ``I can't, for the life of me, figure out why we are here defending Koreans against Koreans.''
Unlike previous US presidents since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, Clinton is the first to use high-level diplomacy with North Korea. Still, the gaps in his strategy - if there is one - are starting to be noticed.
US plan not clear
``The US has not articulated yet what it will do if North Korea makes concessions,'' says political science professor Chae Jin Lee of Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.
As a result, without such US promises as ending a trade embargo against Pyongyang or declaring that there will be no US nuclear strikes, hard-liners in the Pyongyang leadership may be prevailing in their strategy to stall nuclear inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
In addition, North Korea has not tested a nuclear device, an important threshold to make any threat credible. Nor has it actually withdrawn from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), even though it made the threat a year ago, forcing the US into a diplomatic offensive.
``That's a tip-off that North Korea wants a solution and will get back to diplomacy,'' says Bruce Cummings, a Korea scholar at the University of Chicago.
Stalling on NPT?
North Korea may be also trying to stall on inspections until at least April 1995, when the NPT comes up for full review and many nations, even perhaps Japan, might join in watering it down.
The US is especially worried that North Korea, if it builds a bomb, might export it to other nations, such as Libya, and also lead Japan to build a bomb. But US tolerance in allowing South Africa and Israel to pursue nuclear-weapons projects has undercut its stance for limiting nuclear proliferation.
``North Korea is being very shrewd in being a point man for a lot of other countries who didn't like the big powers setting up an exclusive nuclear club in the 1960s,'' Dr. Cummings says.
China and Japan, which may have more to lose than the US if either Korea has a nuclear bomb, are not totally backing the tough US line, especially the threat of United Nations trade sanctions. Yet the US does not seem to mind.
``The North Korean issue gives the US a good reason for closer relations with China,'' says Chen Jiang, historian at the State University of New York at Genenseo. China gains leverage on trade and human rights issues with the US because of its influence in Pyongyang. (North Korea receives most of its oil from China.)
Japan wants to avoid a conflict at all costs and thus is wary of pushing North Korea into a corner with sanctions.
``If Americans start to be killed in Korea, Japan will not be able to join the fighting, just as it refused to join in the Gulf War. Then the US-Japan security treaty is dead,'' Dr. Johnson says.
For its part, South Korea, while following the US line, is calm about any danger from the North.
``The West sees North Korea as an object to be manipulated by carrots and sticks, rather than as a partner,'' says Sung Chul Yang, political scientist at Kyung Hee University in Seoul.
``When North Korea is in the coldest of winters,'' he said, ``we have to have the wisdom of waiting until it is ready for spring.''