AP headlines its latest story “U.S. Offers Bilateral Talks With N.Korea,” but that’s misleading. The offer is only good within the six-party talk framework, which means it’s not a new offer and doesn’t represent any movement on the part of the US toward the North’s point of view. There have been several bilateral talks between the US and NK over the past few years, but always as a sideline within the six-party framework.

A U.S. envoy expressed support for China’s proposal to hold informal six-nation talks on the North Korean nuclear threat and offered to meet bilaterally with the North on the sidelines of those discussions.

Beijing has floated the idea of an informal meeting between members of the six-party nuclear talks – the two Koreas, China, Russia, Japan and the United States. Pyongyang has for months refused to attend formal negotiations, protesting U.S. financial restrictions imposed over the North’s alleged counterfeiting, money-laundering and other illegal practices.

“As many of you know, the Chinese have talked about putting together a six-party informal, and we both support that and we think that all countries are prepared to come to that informal meeting,” Hill told reporters after meeting with Chun Young-woo, South Korea’s top nuclear negotiator.

Asked about the possibility of a bilateral meeting with the North, he said: “Within the informal six-party talks, yes, I can.”

“I just can’t do it when they are boycotting the six-party talks.”

What can be accomplished at “informal” talks versus formal talks is a mystery to me.

North Korea, for its part, doesn’t even seem to be in a mood to talk about anything other than raining death and destruction on everyone else:

A TOP North Korean propagandist raised the threat of nuclear war yesterday as the fighting talk triggered by the isolated regime’s missile launches got scarier than any disintegrating Taepodong-2.

Kim Myong-chol, a freelance propagandist for the Stalinist state, claimed North Korea would treat any country supporting UN sanctions against it – and that would definitely include Australia – as a nuclear missile target.

“Now the US is seeking sanctions for us doing nothing in violation of international law – this is outrageous,” he said in Tokyo yesterday. “North Korea considers this an act of war and North Korea will launch a missile at any country that joins such a resolution.”

Pyongyang had better get 15 missiles gassed up and ready to go, then, because one way or another the UNSC will probably approve some kind of resolution. South Korea, meanwhile, seems to have awoken from its slumber and made a move:

South Korea has said it will withhold food and fertilizer shipments to impoverished North Korea until the missile crisis is resolved, even as it pledged to hold high-level talks with the communist regime next week.

That’s unilateral sanctions, basically–a move that North Korea has said it will view as an act of war.

Unless the Chinese are a lot crazier than I think they are, I seriously doubt the view that Beijing ordered the North to fire off those missiles that sparked this crisis. If this crisis isn’t ramped down significantly and in short order, Beijing will find itself flanked by angry powers Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, all of whom will be looking to arm up to counter the growing threat from North Korea. Both Japan and South Korea could become true nuclear powers at the flip of a switch; Japan could become a true military superpower after making a small edit to its constitution–an edit that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi already supports and is working on. The last thing China should want is a re-militarized Japan, and one that this time around finds its best friend in Washington.

So the question is, if China isn’t behind the North’s recent moves, what is? I see a couple of possibilities, one optimistic and one pessimistic. The optmistic one is that perhaps there is some unrest taking place in the North, and Kim is seeking to curb that by sparking a national crisis that he can and no doubt will blame on those treacherous Yankees. If that’s the case, and there has been evidence of some unrest slipping out of North Korea in the past year or so, then this entire crisis is being manufactured for domestic consumption.

The pessimistic scenario is that Kim Jong-Il really wants to provoke a war on the Korean Peninsula, or at least push things to such a brink that everyone stands down and gives him what he wants. If that’s the case, he’ll keep pushing and may find a way to trigger a real war. One of his Nodongs or Taepodongs is bound to be more than just a dud. Kim is crazy enough to believe his own propaganda by now, and may think he has a prayer of surviving a war against us, South Korea and Japan.

Update: Related, and not: The USS Mustin is now based Yokosuka, Japan:

The USS Mustin sailed into the port of Yokosuka, home to the Navy’s 7th Fleet, with a crew of 300 for permanent assignment to the region, 7th Fleet spokeswoman Hanako Tomizuka said.

In August, Yokosuka will also welcome the USS Shiloh, which last month demonstrated its ability to shoot down missile warheads in a landmark test off the coast of Hawaii.

Both the Mustin and the Shiloh are equipped with radar systems that employ so-called Aegis technology, which is geared toward tracking and shooting down enemy missiles.

The deployment of the two ships to Yokosuka, which is a couple hours’ drive from Tokyo unless the traffic is bollixed up, isn’t directly related to North Korea’s latest bellicosity. But it’s related to the general threats in the region, including that of North Korea. The two Aegis destroyers aren’t the first of their kind deployed to Yokosuka, either. I spent a couple of days here and there back in the 1990s aboard the USS Bunker Hill, a similar ship, when it was in port at Yokosuka.