The negotiations over North Korea's nuclear weapons continue to be rocky and unpredictable, with hints that North Korea may be seeking to keep nuclear programs it had pledged to give up.
In February, North Korea signed what the Bush administration hailed as a landmark agreement to abandon ambitions for nuclear weapons. But Pyongyang walked out of a more recent round of talks. It now says it wants the United States to return millions of dollars in frozen funds before it begins to address the nuclear issue.
The suggestion that North Korea might want to keep its nuclear programs came in a remark from Kim Gye Gwan to U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, who has led the U.S. side during the six-party talks over North Korea's nuclear program. Kim said the U.S. ought to treat North Korea the way it treats India.
Last year, the Bush administration signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with India, even though New Delhi refuses to give up its nuclear weapons. Years of U.S. policy prior to the agreement had been aimed at getting India to abandon its nuclear weapons programs.
David Asher was a key official in the State Department during President Bush's first term. He helped put together a strategy to punish North Korea for its money laundering and counterfeiting activities. Now the North Koreans are demanding the return of frozen assets, and Asher does not see the U.S. standing in the way.
"They [North Korea] want it all," Asher said. "And, so far, they're getting it."
In 2005, the Treasury Department singled out a small Chinese bank, the Banco Delta Asia in Macao, for providing services to North Korea. Accounts worth $25 million were connected to North Korean and frozen.
That stalled the talks with Pyongyang for more than a year. They resumed only after North Korea tested a nuclear device last October.
Now North Korea is insisting it must get its funds back before more talks can take place. David Asher says the Bush administration has been too eager to comply.
"What the North Koreans want is not just $25 million in dirty money from Banco Delta back. They want us to accept them as they are, a criminal state, in effect, with nuclear weapons," Asher said.
The agreement North Korea signed in February — with the U.S., China, Russia, Japan and South Korea — gave it 60 days to shut and seal its known nuclear facilities. That deadline is up in two weeks, and so far there are no indications it has taken steps to comply.
Mitchell Reiss, former director of policy planning at the State Department and now vice provost for international affairs at the College of William and Mary, says the administration should have seen this problem coming.
"It really illustrates North Korea's willingness to engage in brinksmanship," Reiss said. "This is a characteristic of their diplomacy. We need to anticipate it. We need to be better prepared for it than we were this past time around."
The North Koreans are setting the negotiating agenda, says Reiss, by the way they react to U.S. actions.
"The argument's often made that we shouldn't care that much because it's a small amount of money," Reiss said. "You can turn it around and say, neither should the North Koreans, given all the other things that are on the table, all the other benefits that they stand to gain by.
"It suggests their willingness to enter into a confrontational approach with us, on issues of their own choosing, not ours."
What's on the table is a host of economic and political incentives for North Korea, if it takes firm steps toward dismantling its nuclear facilities.
One of the first required steps is a declaration of all nuclear activities. The U.S. intelligence community is eager to see whether North Korea will include highly enriched uranium in the declaration.
Accusations in 2002 that North Korea was engaged in a secret program of enriching uranium led to its decision to expel international inspectors and restart its known plutonium program. North Korea is believed to have enough plutonium for as many as eight bombs, besides the one it exploded in October.
A former State Department official with access to the intelligence in 2002 said there was never enough conclusive information that North Korea had a program to produce highly enriched uranium. But it was known Pyongyang had acquired gas centrifuges from Pakistan, and other equipment that could be used to produce it.
Now it will be crucial to see what North Korea declares about highly enriched uranium, says Jack Pritchard, a former State Department special envoy for North Korea.
"The intelligence community doesn't know the current disposition [of gas centrifuges] — whether there is, in fact, a cascade of hundreds or thousands, or none operating," Pritchard said. "Or whether there is a facility, or simply a storage site, where all this stuff is laying."
Experts inside and outside the government believe the banking hurdle will be overcome soon. But that will only clear the way for bigger problems, such as whether North Korea will disclose all that is required of its nuclear activities.