WASHINGTON — American diplomatic efforts on North Korea are coming under fire within the Obama administration from officials who consider talks futile and instead want to focus on halting the regime's trade in nuclear weapons and missile equipment, U.S. officials said.
The administration's official goal has been to coax the Pyongyang government back into the six-nation disarmament talks that began in 2003.
Yet privately, many senior officials say they have all but lost hope that North Korea will cooperate, and some are arguing that it is time for a new approach.
"We don't have six-party talks," said a senior U.S. official who described internal discussions on condition of anonymity. "We may have no choice but to move to containment."
The change of heart has come in the last three months, as North Korea quit the talks, restarted a nuclear reactor that had been shuttered and conducted bomb and missile tests that have provoked an international outcry.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton first expressed pessimism in April, when she told a Senate committee that North Korea's return to the talks was "implausible, if not impossible." The talks involve the United States, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, Russia and China.
Abandoning the six-party strategy would mean giving up on a diplomatic tool that has helped coordinate action among North Korea's closest neighbors.
It would also mean throwing in the towel on an effort that involved years of grinding diplomacy that at times seemed to offer promise. As recently as September, in the waning days of the Bush administration, some U.S. officials believed Pyongyang would agree to give international inspectors access to North Korean facilities to verify that the nation was living up to promises to abandon its nuclear program.
"Containment" was a term adopted after World War II to describe U.S. and Allied efforts to prevent the expansion of Soviet influence.
Used against North Korea, the strategy would entail blocking shipments of banned equipment by land, air and sea.
It also would mean trying to prevent Pyongyang from importing equipment that might be used for weapons programs, including so-called dual-use equipment, which is designed for nonmilitary purposes but can be adapted for weapons.
Such an effort could succeed only with strong cooperation from North Korea's neighbors, China and Russia. Although they are increasingly unhappy with North Korea's provocative behavior, they have for years resisted U.S. attempts to crack down on Pyongyang.
It remains to be seen whether China and Russia would support new efforts to control shipments of suspect material. But U.S. officials point to support by the two countries for U.N. Security Council sanctions adopted in June as a sign that their attitude is hardening.
The administration has begun stepping up U.S. efforts under the new United Nations resolution, which permits countries to take steps to block trade in arms and to halt international financial transactions used to fund it.
The Obama administration came to office believing that with high-level diplomacy, it would have more success than either the Bush or Clinton teams in persuading Pyongyang to give up its nuclear program.
But in their attempt to reach out, Obama officials have been "slapped in the face," said Victor D. Cha, who served in the National Security Council under former President George W. Bush and is now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
U.S. officials speculate that aggressive North Korean actions may indicate the rising influence of hard-liners in an internal struggle over who is to succeed the ailing North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il.
A South Korean television station reported Monday that Kim has been diagnosed with life-threatening pancreatic cancer.
Senior administration officials have been signaling that their foremost concern with North Korea is the risk of proliferation.
James L. Jones, the White House national security advisor, said in May that the "imminent danger" in North Korea was not the launch of a nuclear missile, but the potential sales of arms to other countries or terrorist groups.
North Korea's efforts to design an accurate long-range nuclear missile, he said, "still have a long way to go."
U.S. officials believe that their efforts forced a North Korean ship they suspect was carrying banned weapons to return without delivering them. They said at least three ports denied entry to the ship, the Kang Nam 1, after a U.S. effort to draw attention to suspicions about the cargo.
International concern over North Korea's weapons tests could help U.S. efforts to enlist help from other countries, Cha said. The Bush administration struggled for years to cut off trade unilaterally, but that effort has been legitimized with a United Nations mandate.
"I can't conceive of an administration being better positioned to undertake such an effort than this one is," he said.
At the same time, Cha said there would be international pressure on the White House to return to talks if North Korea offered to do so.
U.S. officials believe they also have leverage over Pyongyang through their authorization to block international financial transactions that may be related to North Korea's weapons programs.
Such efforts previously have angered Pyongyang. In 2005, North Korea halted its participation in talks after the United States in effect froze Pyongyang's funds by threatening to cut off a Macau bank from the American financial system.