HONOLULU — In a subtle but unmistakable signal, U.S. President George W. Bush has shoved the American confrontation with North Korea well down the list of Washington’s priorities.

The president, in his State of the Union address on Tuesday, suggested that is focus on Iraq — obsession may not be a too strong a word — has pushed his administration’s quarrel with North Korea to the bottom of the radar screen.

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 the 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 U.S. would make any new offers to resolve the dispute.

Since last 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 U.S. sign a nonaggression pact, arguing that U.S. pledges not to invade are not good enough.

Bush held out a promise of better things if North Korea’s “dear leader,” Kim Jong Il, would give up his nuclear aspirations. “Nuclear weapons will bring only isolation, economic stagnation and continued hardship,” the president said. “The North Korean regime will find respect in the world and revival for its people only when it turns away from its nuclear ambitions.”

The lack of urgency in the president’s statements suggested that the administration feels time is on the side of the U.S. and South Korea, and that North Korea, left to its own devices, may collapse from economic corrosion. For the last decade, North Korea has experienced mismanagement, excessive military spending and natural disasters. Between 1 and 2 million North Koreans 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 the 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 U.S. itself, 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.

The danger in this aspect of the confrontation is that Kim and his generals might miscalculate, thinking that the U.S. has concentrated all its attention and military power on Iraq and would have nothing left to strike North Korea.

What 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 the question of Iraq has been settled, or to let the South Koreans, Japanese, Chinese and Russians resolve these issues.

In particular, Bush did not repeat his accusation that North Korea, along with Iran and Iraq, was part of the “axis of evil,” an expression first used 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 president’s relatively bland remarks on North Korea especially contrasted with his lengthy, detailed and sometimes impassioned condemnation of Iraq and its leader, President Saddam Hussein.

In an indirect response to Bush, the Korean Central News Agency, which claims to speak for the North Korean government, thundered: “It is the unshakable will of the DPRK (Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, the formal name for North Korea) to react to the hardline with the toughest stand and strongly retaliate against the enemies.”

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 fulminations. For Kim, to be ignored or brushed off as irrelevant may be the unkindest cut of all.

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