By Kari Huus Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 9/29/2004 9:27:19 PM ET 2004-09-30T01:27:19

“Top of the list is North Korea,” says Nancy Soderberg, vice president of the International Crisis Group.

The reclusive and unpredictable regime of President Kim Jong Il has repeatedly hinted it is pursuing a nuclear weapons program and will continue to unless Washington offers ironclad assurance of non-aggression. The Bush administration has refused, and says it will not negotiate until Pyongyang fully and verifiably eliminates its nuclear weapons program.

The United States and South Korea are technically still at war with North Korea, with militaries facing off at the 38th parallel, though fighting halted under an armistice in 1953.

While experts disagree about North Korea’s nuclear capability, and the pace it can create warheads, most agree time is not on the U.S. side. Apart from building its own capacity to create havoc, the implications for proliferation are grave. Pyongyang relies heavily on military exports -- particularly sale of missile technology – and its customers include several nations rogue nations.

The one glimmer of hope was six-party talks in which the United States, North Korea, China, South Korea, Russia and Japan met. But little was accomplished. Another round for September didn't materialize, and it seems Pyongyang won’t budge until it sees who wins the White House.

While the Bush administration has not pursued talks, it repeated its resolve to pursue a peaceful solution – and clearly has no interest in provoking a military conflict while U.S. forces are stretched to the limits in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“It all begs the question… “says Jonathon Pollack, chairman of the Strategic Research Department at the U.S. Naval War College. “If you preclude using force or negotiation, what are your options?”

In June, the Pentagon announced a plan to withdraw one-third of the 37,000 U.S. troops in South Korea, by the end of 2005. Some 3,600 have already been deployed to Iraq.

This move is part of a global “realignment,” but some wonder whether withdrawing troops wasted a bargaining chip. “It sends confusing signals and raises questions about our resolve in the region,” says Soderberg, a former policy advisor to President Clinton. “It’s something you should do as a part of a deal.”

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