WASHINGTON - A rare foreign policy success for the Bush administration is imploding as North Korea backs away from pledges to abandon nuclear weapons, pretty much as the president's critics on the right had warned.
Distracted by an economic crisis at home and a series of diplomatic setbacks abroad, President Bush and his top aides are watching the collapse of a painstakingly negotiated process that just months ago seemed on track to produce a major international success and perhaps bring a final end to the Korean War before they leave office.
With time running out on the administration and questions about the health of dictator Kim Jong Il, North Korea has stopped cooperating with the six-nation effort to rid it of atomic bombs and is moving to restart a reactor it disabled with great fanfare in June. It has also tested a missile engine in violation of U.N. sanctions, officials say.
On Friday, the State Department all but acknowledged that the prospects for an agreement while Bush is president are dead, although the United States isn't giving up.
"We're going to continue to push this process forward and do those things that we believe are responsible acts in the national interest," spokesman Sean McCormack said, adding: "Then we will be ready to turn over what we hope is a six-party process moving forward, as well as other diplomatic initiatives" to a new administration.
The list of those handovers is growing.
Hopes for even the outlines of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal by year's end are dwindling rapidly and Iran is continuing its nuclear work in defiance of U.S. and international demands. In addition, the administration is facing new challenges in Latin America and from an emboldened Russia flexing its muscles in Georgia and elsewhere.
Some goals had been longshots to begin with, but many had held out hope that a North Korea deal was achievable.
North Korea confirmed for the first time Thursday that it is making "thorough preparations" to restart its Yongbyon nuclear facility because the United States has failed to follow through with promised incentives. It also said it was no longer interested in one of its main demands, removal from a U.S. terrorism blacklist.
North Korea "will go its own way," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
White House national security adviser Stephen Hadley said Friday that it's hard to know whether North Korea's moves reflect a change of policy, or reflect their pattern of "negotiating, and then trying to provoke, if you will, test, create divisions to see if the six parties are serious in sticking together and sticking by their deals."
From time to time, the United States has watched as North Korea has negotiated, then has stepped out. "They're obstructionists," Hadley said during a briefing with reporters on Bush's trip next week to the United Nations. "They try to divide, and if we stand firm, they come back into a negotiating cycle."
"We don't know whether we are in one of those, and this is sort of posturing and pressuring, or whether it is something more than that. I don't think we know now, I don't think we will know for a while."
McCormack refused to comment on how the ill health of Kim, who analysts believe is supportive of the negotiations, may have affected North Korea's decision-making. He also declined to speculate on any other motive for Pyongyang's change of heart or whether they might be holding out for a better deal from the next president.
"I don't know who the next president, who the next secretary of state, is going to be, but I would wager that they're not going to get a much different deal from the next administration as they're getting from this administration," he said. "We are prepared to meet our obligations, should North Korea meet its obligations."
Such entreaties, though, look destined to fall on deaf ears, particularly given uncertainty over Kim's authority in Pyongyang.
After detonating a nuclear device in 2006, North Korea a year later promised to give up atomic arms in exchange for diplomatic concessions and energy aid. In late June, it submitted a long-delayed declaration of its nuclear activities and blew up the cooling tower at Yongbyon in a show of its commitment.
Since then, the accord has stalled with Washington refusing to take North Korea off its list of state sponsors of terrorism until it accepts a plan to verify its the declaration.
Bush refused to negotiate with North Korea for years, accusing the nation he once included as part of an "axis of evil" of habitually lying and cheating on any deal it cut. Since he agreed to join the group talks, Bush has been openly suspicious of North Korea's motives while welcoming what had seemed to be the prospect that the Stalinist state might really put itself out of the nuke business.
Foreign policy hawks, including some current and former members of Bush's team, said the disarmament for aid talks were a pig in a poke, even as negotiations lurched along.
With less leverage, Washington has appeared befuddled and reduced to making desperate appeals for the North to get back on board.
McCormack acknowledged that North Korea's recent actions — all taken after Kim is believed to have suffered a stroke in August — represented a "negative progression" and he called on Pyongyang, which he said was "getting closer and closer" to restarting Yongbyon, to change course.
"We would urge them not to get to that point," he said.
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