The US is considering whether to negotiate a peace treaty with North Korea that would formally end the 1950-53 Korean war as part of an attempt to persuade the secretive Communist state to end its nuclear programme.
No decision has yet been taken by the White House, officials said. But the idea is being closely examined as a means of breaking the stalemate over Pyongyang's nuclear capability - thought by US intelligence agencies to include fissile material for half a dozen or more nuclear devices.
Negotiations with the North have been at a standstill since last September, when six-nation talks in Beijing - involving the US, Russia, China, the two Koreas and Japan - yielded an outline deal for the North to give up its nuclear ambitions in return for security guarantees and economic assistance.
The problem is that both parties insist that their demands must be met as a pre-condition to any final deal. North Korea wants cast-iron security guarantees before it considers dismantling, while Washington insists dismantling must happen before it signs any security deal.
No date has been set for new talks; indeed, the North has become more defiant after the US imposed financial sanctions aimed at its banking activities in Macao and other Asian centres.
US officials suggested yesterday that the treaty idea, reported in The New York Times, was nothing new. Washington could only offer normal relations to North Korea, they said, if the latter demonstrated it would end its nuclear programme, and cease the pursuit of such weapons. "First they must come back to negotiations and show they have made a strategic decision," a State Department spokesman said.
Nonetheless, a shift could be at hand in the US approach to what it believes is the paramount international problem of the age - the threat of nuclear proliferation, and the possibility that such a weapon is acquired by a terrorist group.
Pyongyang has long wanted a formal peace treaty to replace the 1953 armistice, which remains the only agreement to end the war. The US now seems ready to talk on this, in parallel with the six-nation talks. The peace talks would be in a smaller forum, excluding Japan and Russia, and involving only the original belligerents - the US, China and North Korea, as well as South Korea, which did not sign the armistice.
The search here for a new gambit towards Pyongyang may also be linked with the current deadlock over the nuclear ambitions of Iran, seemingly impervious both to offers of economic aid from Europe, and threats of sanctions, and possibly military action by the US.
Though Tehran now claims to have started the uranium enrichment essential to produce a weapon, its programme is plainly less advanced than that of North Korea. US analysts have long believed that after throwing out UN inspectors in 2002, Pyongyang has accumulated enough for six weapons, and is adding at least a weapon's worth every year.
But administration officials believe that the Iranian leadership has drawn the lesson that intransigence pays, having noted how North Korea has made no concessions to the US.
If Iran saw that even North Korea accepted it had no alternative but to negotiate seriously, then it too could decide to take a similar path, they argue. Meanwhile, calls are multiplying here for the government to join the EU effort and deal directly with Tehran.Reuse content