HONOLULU — The United States and North Korea have once again reached an impasse in their long distance negotiations through the press. The North Koreans have demanded that the U.S. sign a nonaggression pact as part of a settlement of disputes on the Peninsula.

In return, Pyongyang says it will consider halting its nuclear weapons program and sales of ballistic missiles to other countries. The Bush administration has flatly refused.

The government of Kim Jong Il, known in Pyongyang as the “Dear Leader,” said last week through its official Korean Central News Agency, or KCNA, that the Peninsula “is on the verge of war.” The only way of preventing a catastrophe, KCNA said, “is to conclude a nonaggression treaty.”

In response, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told a press conference in Washington: “We will not bargain or offer inducements for North Korea to live up to the treaties and agreements it has signed,” several of which require Pyongyang not to produce nuclear arms. “What we can’t and won’t do,” Powell said, “is reward North Korea for its misbehavior.”

North Korea has sought the nonaggression pact to preclude the U.S. from mounting a pre-emptive strike. KCNA has alleged that the U.S. is planning such an assault despite President George W. Bush’s pledge that the U.S. is not planning to attack North Korea. Powell reiterated that pledge: “North Korea knows the U.S. does not intended to start a war with North Korea.”

Nonetheless, Bush has declared that the U.S. could strike first if it had evidence of an imminent attack. In South Korea, U.S. and South Korean war planners have identified North Korean targets that could be taken out if the North Koreans begin to prepare their forces for war, according to U.S. officers.

South Korea and the U.S., which has 37,000 troops in South Korea, would have 48 to 72 hours of warning if the North Koreans mobilized their forces deployed close to the 240-km demilitarized zone that divides the Peninsula. Intelligence would detect radio traffic, troops and armored vehicles moving, artillery being rolled out of caves, and other signs. The U.S. could put a bomber over North Korea from the continental U.S. in 24 hours.

The North Korean threat hardly seems credible. Its army, while large, is equipped with many obsolete weapons and is short of fuel and spare parts. The economy has been in a tailspin for a decade and working people rarely have a decent meal. Between 1 and 2 million people have died in a nation that must rely on food donations to survive.

Thus, it might be tempting to brush off North Korea’s diplomacy by diatribe and threats of war as so much bluster from a painfully weak nation. That would be a mistake, because North Korean leaders are so ignorant of the outside world that they might miscalculate.

Kim has wrapped himself in a personality cult similar to that of his father, the late “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung. Russian influence, which once restrained Pyongyang, has faded.

Chinese leaders have told the U.S. that they have little influence over Kim but will keep his regime on enough life support to survive.

Analysts of North Korea worry that Kim will seek to take advantage of the U.S. preoccupation with Iraq. U.S. military officers will not say so in public, but they are worried that U.S. forces are stretched too thin to fight in Iraq and North Korea at the same time. In the Persian Gulf War against Iraq in 1991, the U.S. had 2 million men and women under arms; today, the forces are down to 1.4 million.

In the 10 weeks since U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly visited Pyongyang to confront the North Koreans with evidence that they had resumed their nuclear weapons program, the North Koreans have leveled at least seven demands of the U.S.:

* Nonaggression pact;

* Peace treaty to replace the truce that ended the Korean War of 1950-1953;

* Withdrawal of American troops from South Korea;

* Diplomatic relations;

* U.S. extension of most favored nation treatment in trade with North Korea;

* U.S. compensation of North Korea for lost missile sales; and,

* Removal from Bush’s “axis of evil” list, which includes Iraq and Iran.

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