Progress in reducing tensions on the Korean peninsula, never easy, has reached a dangerous impasse. The last six months have witnessed an extraordinary series of events in the region that have profound implications for security and stability throughout Northeast Asia, a region that is home to 100,000 U.S. troops and three of the world's 12 largest economies.
Perhaps the most dramatic of these events was North Korea's December decision to restart its frozen plutonium-based nuclear program at Yongbyon -- including a reprocessing facility that separates plutonium for nuclear weapons from spent reactor fuel. Just as disturbing was the North's stunning public admission two months earlier that it had begun building a new, highly-enriched-uranium (HEU) nuclear program. And then came yet another unsettling development: a growing, sharp division emerged between the United States and the new South Korean government over how to respond.
But recent events have not been entirely negative. In the two months prior to the October HEU revelation, North Korea had, with remarkable speed, undertaken an important series of positive initiatives that seemed the polar opposite of its posturing on the nuclear issue. These included initiating an unscheduled meeting between its foreign minister, Paek Nam Sun, and Secretary of State Colin Powell in July -- the highest-level contact between the two nations since the Bush administration took office; inviting a U.S. delegation for talks in Pyongyang; proposing the highest-level talks with South Korea in a year; agreeing to re-establish road and rail links with the South and starting work on the project almost immediately; demining portions of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) and wide corridors on the east and west coasts surrounding the rail links; sending more than 600 athletes and representatives to join the Asian Games in Pusan, South Korea (marking the North's first-ever participation in an international sporting event in the South); enacting a series of economic and market reforms (including increasing wages, allowing the price of staples to float freely, and inaugurating a special economic zone