WASHINGTON --President Bush's top advisers have recommended a new approach to dealing with North Korea that would include beginning negotiations on a peace treaty, even while efforts to dismantle the country's nuclear program are still under way, senior administration officials and Asian diplomats said.
Aides say Bush is likely to approve the new approach, which has been debated among different factions within the administration. But he will not do so unless North Korea returns to multinational negotiations over its nuclear programs. The talks have been stalled since September.
North Koreans have long demanded a peace treaty, which would replace the 1953 armistice ending the Korean War. For most of his time in office, Bush has vowed not to end North Korea's economic and diplomatic isolation until it takes steps toward disarmament. If he allows treaty talks to begin before significant dismantlement takes place, that would be a major change of tactics toward North Korea.
The decision to consider a change may have been influenced in part by growing concerns about Iran's nuclear program. A senior Asian official who has been briefed on the administration's discussions said, "There is a sense that they can't leave Korea out there as a model for what the Iranians hope to become - a nuclear state that can say no to outside pressure."
But it is far from clear that North Korea would engage in any new discussions, especially if they include talks of political change, human rights, terrorism and an opening of the country, topics that the Bush administration has insisted would have to be part of any comprehensive discussions with North Korea.
With the war in Iraq and the nuclear dispute with Iran as distractions, many top officials have all but given up hope that North Korea's government will disarm or collapse during Bush's remaining time in office. Increasingly, they blame two of Bush's negotiating partners, South Korea and China, which have poured aid into North Korea even while the United States has tried to cut off its major sources of revenue.
In Bush's first term he said repeatedly that he would never "tolerate" a nuclear North Korea. Now he rarely discusses the country's suspected weapons. Instead, he has met in the Oval Office with escapees from the country and used the events to discuss North Korea's prison camps and treatment of its people.
Bush has also been under subtle pressure to change the first-term talk of speeding regime change.
"Focusing on regime change as the road to denuclearization confuses the issue," former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger wrote in a lengthy op-ed article that appeared Tuesday in The Washington Post. Noting that the negotiations have been conducted by Christopher R. Hill, a seasoned diplomat who played a major role in the Dayton peace accords, he said, "Periodic engagement at a higher level is needed."
With the six-nation negotiations over North Korea's nuclear program appearing to go nowhere, the drive to come up with a broader strategy was propelled by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and one of her top aides, Philip D. Zelikow, who drafted two papers describing the new approach. The papers touched off what one senior official called "a blizzard of debate" over the next steps that eventually included Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, who has been widely described by current and former officials as leading the drive in Bush's first term to make sure the North Korean government, led by Kim Jong Il, received no concessions from the United States until all of its weapons and weapons sites were taken apart. It is unclear where Cheney stands on the new approach that emerged from the State Department.
Now, said one official who has participated in the recent internal debate, "I think it is fair to say that many in the administration have come to the conclusion that dealing head-on with the nuclear problem is simply too difficult."
The official added, "So the question is whether it would help to try to end the perpetual state of war" that has existed, at least on paper, for 53 years. "It may be another way to get there."
A National Security Council spokesman declined to comment on any internal deliberations on North Korea policy and referred all questions to the State Department, which has handled the negotiations with the North. The State Department spokesman, Sean McCormack, declined to discuss the recommendations made to Bush, saying: "The most important decision is with North Korea - and that is the strategic decision to give up their nuclear weapons program.
"They signed a joint statement," he added, "but they have yet to demonstrate that they have made the decision to abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs."
In justifying its refusal to return to talks, the North Koreans have complained bitterly about the economic sanctions imposed by the United States, which have been aimed at closing down the North's banking activities in Macao and elsewhere in Asia. The United States has described those steps as "defensive measures" intended to stop the country from counterfeiting U.S. currency and exporting drugs and missiles.
Even if peace treaty negotiations started, officials insisted, those sanctions would continue. A month ago, Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser, told a small audience of foreign policy experts that the sanctions were "the first thing we have done that has gotten their attention," according to several participants in the meeting. Some intelligence officials say they believe the protests may have arisen in part because they affected a secretive operation in North Korea called Unit 39 that finances the personal activities of Kim, the North Korean leader, including the money he spends for personal entertainment and winning the loyalty of others in the leadership.