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Just to get us started on the North Korea question, here’s an apt interchange in an interview which CNN’s Miles O’Brien did with Newsweek’s foreign affairs correspondent Roy Gutman on Monday …

O’BRIEN: All right, some softening statements from the administration over the weekend. Secretary of State Powell saying, we don’t want to call these negotiations, but talks. There’s a lot of deciphering of the language here and maybe you can help us walk down that road. Why are they so circumspect?

GUTMAN: Well, the administration has had a very hard line approach to North Korea almost from the moment it took office. It decided not to pursue the Clinton administration’s approach, which was essentially to buy off North Korea off of its nuclear ambitions, off of its missile export ambitions, and for months and months, until the middle of last year, they could not decide really how to deal with them, but they’re preparing to take a hardline, then they decided late last year or the middle of last year to go back to some kind of negotiations, but it never really got started until this summer.

And I think the North Koreans realized or decided at a certain point that after they were included in the “axis of evil” and after the administration did drag its feet for a rather long time, that they were going to up the stakes and raise the ante, and now the administration finds itself in something of a crisis.

O’BRIEN: All right, but there’s another shift to consider here, and that is that under the Clinton administration, it was basically an article of faith that if the North Koreans resumed processing of plutonium at that facility, that’s prima facieia evidence to begin some sort of military strike against it. The administration now saying that is not the policy. When did that shift occur?

GUTMAN: I guess the shift occurred over the weekend. They realized, frankly, that their policy at the moment, which is don’t talk to the North Koreans’ at all, and that is the North Korean’s number one aim, was not working and would probably lead to some kind of a direct confrontation which would involve invoking, or might involve invoking the Clinton administration’s informal policy towards the north. That really leads directly to nuclear — it could lead to nuclear war, but certainly to some kind of a conventional war. They thought it was getting out of control.

O’BRIEN: Is this a tacit admission by the administration for all its might, the U.S. military can’t do much on the Korean peninsula?

GUTMAN: It’s a tough situation, because in terms of conventional sources, the north has enough force mustered and enough artillery aimed at the south that it can cause havoc and enormous bloodshed in a very short time. So in a sense, they’ve got a club on our head.

Secondly, you know, the U.S. does have about 40, 000 troops there, but they’re a kind of a trip wire. It can be the wrong kind of trip wire. They can be, in a sense, hostage. The options are not — there are not a lot of good options.

O’BRIEN: Is it time, given the feelings in South Korea in particular, to begin pulling the troops out, and thus eliminate that hostage scenario, as you put it?

GUTMAN: Well, it might send precisely the wrong signal, namely that when the pressure gets turned up, the U.S. pulls its forces out.

No, I think quite how we’re going to get out of this crisis I’m not sure, but I think it’s going to involve some kind of talks with the North Koreans and probably some kind of a return to policies similar to what was there in the Clinton administration.

O’BRIEN: So you see it easing in the near term.

GUTMAN: No, not in the near term, because I think the administration is still following a course which is to isolate the north, to put economic sanctions on, and to reduce the conversation with them, rather than to increase it. So I don’t see that — in fact, for the next few weeks, this could be a very tense time.

More to come on this soon …

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