When North Korea confessed to having a secret nuclear-weapons program, reopened a mothballed reactor, threw out inspectors and disconnected the monitoring cameras, officials from the watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) met in Vienna and decided not to report all this misbehavior to the U.N. Security Council for action. But last week Pyongyang raised the stakes even higher, and now the IAEA may have no choice. When President Kim Jong Il declared that North Korea would become the first nation ever to pull out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and might test some new missiles as well, the pretense that this confrontation doesn't count as a crisis finally got stuffed in a drawer. IAEA director-general Mohamed ElBaradei met with top U.S. officials and discussed whether to reconvene the IAEA Board of Governors and toss the mess over to the Security Council. Pyongyang then said it would take the matter directly to the council--though the move may simply complicate the situation. "If you bring this to the Security Council," a top U.N. official told TIME, "either it will not be able to agree, or at the best you will get economic sanctions, and that will get North Korea to become more angry and do more nasty stuff."
The gamesmanship from Pyongyang made it even harder for the Bush Administration to resolve the fight between those who say that talking to Kim amounts to rewarding blackmail and those who say that isolating Kim will just make it harder to stop him. Everyone from Dick Cheney to Colin Powell was tiptoeing around their verbs--the U.S. is willing to talk but not negotiate--leading critics like Senator John McCain to call the policy positively Clintonian in its evasiveness. But the signals were mixed from North Korea as well. There was hard-line talk in public about a "holy war" with the U.S., even as North Korean diplomats were meeting privately in New Mexico with Governor Bill Richardson, formerly President Bill Clinton's U.N. ambassador, who in turn was in constant touch with Powell. That gave a clue to what Kim wants: bilateral talks with the U.S., on a regular basis. "We discussed issues very frankly," Richardson said, "but in a positive atmosphere." And that may be Pyongyang's goal. --By Marguerite Michaels and Stewart Stogel