BEIJING - A United Nations envoy just back from North Korea said yesterday that the Pyongyang regime is concerned it could be the next military target of the United States and might take another provocative step to show it is prepared.
But diplomat Maurice Strong said he detected "a very strong commitment" from North Korea to negotiate an end to the nuclear standoff with the United States, and he urged Washington and Pyongyang to come to the table to avoid the possibility of tensions spiraling out of control.
"Diplomatic solutions require discussion among parties," Strong said. "Until those discussions occur, the risks that the process will degenerate without the intention of either party into a conflict will remain. The sooner those discussions take place, the more likely it is that a peaceful resolution all are seeking will, in fact, occur."
Strong's trip was part of a U.N. attempt to encourage the United States and North Korea to talk. Pyongyang has said it would renounce its nuclear ambitions if the United States provided it with a written guarantee of security, but the Bush administration refuses to talk directly because it does not wish to reward the North's "bad behavior." The United States insists that North Korea answer to the international community.
Strong, a Canadian, said the two sides did not seem very far apart - that at least neither side wants war - but he suggested that the situation was more sensitive and complicated because of the U.S.-led war on Iraq. Pyongyang has worried that it might be the next target because the Bush administration has linked North Korea and Iraq as part of an "axis of evil," along with Iran.
The war on Iraq began during Strong's trip. He said North Korea was "watching it very carefully with deep concern, and questioning what this means in terms of the U.S. ultimate intention toward them."
He said part of North Korea's expression of this concern has been to test short-range missiles to show its readiness to meet any American action.
In Asia, in particular, there has been fear that North Korea might test a more dangerous ballistic missile capable of reaching Japan or even the West Coast of the United States.
Such provocative acts have been assumed to be part of a strategy of brinkmanship by North Korea to goad the United States into negotiations. But Strong suggested that it had a more fundamental purpose: to meet the perceived aggressive stance by the Americans.
Michael A. Lev writes for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.