North Korea: What are the options?
By CNN's Marianne Bray
The humanitarian situation in North Korea has gone from bad to worse.
China is optimistic despite U.S. skepticism over the first day of talks on N. Korea nuclear weapons.
(CNN) -- As five of the world's most influential nations take a seat at the table with North Korea, they have but a handful of ways to deal with the nuclear crisis.
The Korean nuclear standoff has become a high-stakes, no-bluff game, where the threats are potentially greater than those posed by Iraq.
North Korea sits in the heart of northeast Asia amid some of the world's biggest and fastest growing economies, which are alarmed by the prospect of war or the collapse of an impoverished regime.
Led by dictator Kim Jong Il, and hailing a million-man army, the North is believed by the United States to have at least one nuclear weapon, an extensive chemical weapons stockpile and a biological arsenal.
Washington has already dubbed North Korea as part of an "axis of evil" along with Iraq and Iran.
These suspected weapons of mass destruction pose an immediate threat to North Korea's neighbors -- China, Russia, South Korea and Japan -- all taking part in the Beijing talks, along with the United States.
According to U.S. think tanks and policy analysts, there are four ways of dealing with the nuclear deadlock.
• Hand out aid and security assurances if North Korea dismantles its nuclear program. Former U.S. president Bill Clinton tried this approach in 1994. That pact collapsed after the North violated the deal and pocketed handouts, blaming Washington for not fulfilling its obligations.
• Military strike. This could trigger a full-scale war, with missile attacks, radioactive fallout, economic turmoil and massive refugee flows. U.S. troops in Japan and South Korea could become nuclear hostages.
• Starve Kim Jong Il's regime of money, slapping sanctions and embargoes on the grounds the North is an outlaw of the nonproliferation treaty. Block the country's hard cash from illicit trade and cut off food aid. This is likely to worsen a massive humanitarian crisis on an economically isolated nation.
• Put up with a nuclear-armed North, and accept Pyongyang may export weapons. This could spark an arms race if South Korea, Japan and Taiwan became nuclear powers to defend themselves. Interdict suspected illegal goods through the 11-nation Proliferation Security Initiative, set up in May by Washington to allow the U.S. and its allies to search planes and ships.
The U.S. administration is divided on North Korea, not only because its partners in East Asia have all but ruled out the first option, but because it is not sure what Pyongyang wants.
If Pyongyang is using its nuclear card as a bargaining chip to get attention, money, food and fuel from outside, then paying off the North would be the most likely option, analysts say.
But it would need to be conditional on the introduction of inspectors and international safeguards, with a package to boost investment and exchange with North Koreans.
On the other hand if Pyongyang is determined to become a nuclear power to defend itself, especially in the aftermath of the U.S.-led war on Iraq, then America and its partners have little bargaining power.
"They (the U.S.) could do nothing but wait until the regime collapses, or they could attack, which could be a very bloody war," says Dr. Andrei Lankov, a lecturer at the China and Korea Centre at the Australian National University.
At the end of the day, American officials have not ruled out the military route if diplomacy fails.
"We have been clear in saying that we seek a peaceful solution to resolve the threat posed by Kim Jong Il, but that all options are on the table," Undersecretary of State John Bolton told the East Asia Institute in Seoul on July 31.
Talks first step
Behind the war of words, there are signs the cash-strapped country is keen to reach a deal with the United States, but timing is the issue.
Pyongyang says it won't move until it gets a non-aggression pact, while the United States says Kim needs to dismantle his nuclear program first.
Some American hardliners have suggested the best move the United States could make is to back down, leaving North Korea's neighbors to sort out the standoff.
Dr. Chung-In Moon, Professor of Science at Yonsei University in Seoul, says this would be "a very dangerous and risky line of thinking that would undermine the U.S. position in the region."
The Beijing talks may only be a first step.
"They (the North) will threaten to attack, shoot a couple of missiles, make a lot of noise and make everyone afraid of them," says Lankov. "It's all part of bargaining politics."