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Despite talk of diplomacy, US-N. Korea standoff hardens

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Seeking to address its thorniest Asian problem - the specter of a Korean peninsula studded with North Korean nukes - the White House has quietly achieved what months ago seemed impossible: a broad agreement among Asian states to lock elbows diplomatically and face the isolated regime of Kim Jong Il.

But North Korea has also done what had previously seemed impossible. Over the past six weeks, the Stalinist state has quietly glided past a "red line" no one imagined even six months ago, essentially now declaring itself to be a nuclear-weapons state.

At all three points of official contact between the US and North Korea since October - the most recent being a congressional delegation to Pyongyang June 1 - the North has stated it has active nuclear programs that can be used to create weapons of mass destruction.

It has also been vague about its willingness to participate in future meetings in multinational settings, something the White House requires. In an unusual break with tradition, Washington is hoping Beijing can persuade Kim Jong Il to meet in a follow-up to talks between the US, China, and the North in April.

Still, as a senior Asian diplomat here says, "I find it hard to visualize how North Korea can come up with a plan, and agree to back down, at a table with five or six other representatives. The US and North Korea are going to have to talk face to face at some point. China's role is now crucial, if not the key to avoiding larger problems later."

In the past month, the White House has shored up its own position. In one-on-one meetings with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, and new Chinese President Hu Jintao, the White House has sold its long-held view that only through a united front can diplomacy succeed against Mr. Kim's expertise in driving wedges between allies, sources say.

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