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US split on handling N. Korea

After Pyongyang's nuclear claims last week, hardliners spar with those who advocate more talks.

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Only days after a relatively low-ranking North Korean official informed US envoy James Kelly that his country possesses nuclear weapons, the American foreign-policy establishment is deeply riven over how and whether to engage with the isolated military regime of Kim Jong Il.

In this period after talks between the US, China, and North Korea, two questions loom large in Washington. The first is whether a second round of talks would be relevant. Secretary of State Colin Powell this week revealed that North Korea offered to dismantle its weapons and missile programs in exchange for "something considerable." Both diplomacy and dismantling would likely be lengthy processes, according to a South Korean diplomat.

The second question, closely related, is whether China is willing to play a role large enough for the White House to count on in bringing a diplomatic solution to the seven-month standoff, sources say. China was a surprise player in hosting the closely guarded three-way talks last week, and it was critical to the diplomacy that US hardliners are dubious about.

The divide in Washington is most striking between hardliners in the Defense Department who feel that Mr. Kim is using a form of nuclear blackmail and moderates in the State Department who think that talking doesn't mean capitulation. The struggle has developed into what some observers call 'internecine warfare,' with memos being leaked to both sides and to media by fifth columnists in the departments.

The White House approach to the nuclear North is being shaped ahead of a summit between South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and President Bush in mid-May. Some analysts feel the North's position has narrowed US options to a short list: negotiate, attack, or accept a nuclearized Korean Peninsula.

"The emotions on how to approach the US role in the world today have reactivated an extraordinarily deep division here, and that is playing out in North Korea," says Kurt Campbell, a director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. "It comes out of Iraq, out of the Middle East, and [from] those with sharply different views on China."

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