HONOLULU - In a subtle but unmistakable signal, President Bush has shoved the American confrontation with North Korea well down the list of Washington's priorities. The president suggested in his State of the Union address Jan. 28 that his focus on Iraq - obsession may not be too strong a word - has pushed the quarrel with North Korea to the bottom of the radar screen.
Mr. Bush's language was as tough as ever: "The North Korean regime is using its nuclear program to incite fear and seek concessions. America and the world will not be blackmailed."
But the president then shifted gears to say, in effect, that the United States would follow the initiatives of South Korea, Japan, China and Russia "to find a peaceful solution." He gave no indication that the United States would make new offers to resolve the dispute.
Since October, the Bush administration has been wrangling with the North Koreans over their plans to acquire nuclear arms after having forsworn them in several international commitments. In response, North Korea has demanded that the United States sign a nonaggression pact, arguing that U.S. pledges not to invade are not good enough.
Mr. Bush held out a promise of better things if the "Great Leader" of North Korea, Kim Jong Il, would give up his nuclear aspirations.
The lack of urgency in Mr. Bush's statements suggested that the administration thinks time is on the side of the United States and South Korea and that North Korea, left to its own, may collapse of economic corrosion. For the last decade, North Korea has experienced mismanagement, excessive military spending and natural disasters. Between 1 million and 2 million people are believed to have starved to death.
Further, North Korea does not pose an imminent threat to South Korea or to U.S. forces in Korea and Japan, despite the massed deployment of artillery and rocket launchers along the demilitarized zone that divides the peninsula or longer-range missiles in place deeper inside North Korea.
The reason: U.S. military forces in South Korea and Japan, plus those that could be brought to bear from the United States, would inflict grievous damage on North Korea if it should attack. That deterrent posture has been made publicly and privately clear to the North Koreans. It was reinforced when the Pacific Command, with headquarters in Hawaii, asked for additional air power, including B-52 and B-1 bombers to be deployed to Guam, where they would be within easy striking distance of North Korea.
The danger in this aspect of the confrontation is that Mr. Kim and his generals might miscalculate, thinking that the United States has concentrated all of its attention and military power on Iraq and would have nothing left with which to strike North Korea.
What Mr. Bush didn't say in his address was equally illuminating and underscored his design to put off the clash with North Korea to a time after Iraq has been settled or to let South Korea, Japan, China and Russia resolve these issues.
In particular, Mr. Bush did not repeat the "axis of evil" accusation, in which he lumped together Iraq, Iran and North Korea in his State of the Union address a year ago. He confined himself to asserting that, in Pyongyang, "an oppressive regime rules a people living in fear and starvation." He made no new offer to "talk any time, any place," as the administration has in the past, and set no deadline for reaching an agreement with Pyongyang.
The North Koreans waited two days to respond, then declared: "This policy speech is, in essence, an undisguised declaration of aggression."
The Foreign Ministry, in a statement, called Mr. Bush "an emotional backbiter," "a shameless charlatan" and "the incarnation of misanthropy."
If the president has indeed set a new policy of benign neglect toward North Korea, his administration seems likely to pay little heed to such fulmination. For Mr. Kim, that may be the unkindest cut of all - to be ignored or brushed off as irrelevant.
Richard Halloran, a U.S. military and Asian affairs specialist, is a free-lance journalist based in Honolulu.