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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Tuesday, December 24, 2002

Rumsfeld says U.S. can handle Iraq, North Korea

By Peter Slevin
The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration warned North Korea yesterday not to mistake the world's preoccupation with Iraq as an opportunity to develop a nuclear arsenal, as officials at the International Atomic Energy Agency said they had run out of ways to press North Korea to honor its commitments.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said leaders in Pyongyang should not feel emboldened by Washington's extraordinarily busy foreign policy agenda. "If they do, it would be a mistake," he told reporters. "We are perfectly capable of doing what is necessary."

Rumsfeld was responding to the North Korean government's decision to dismantle a surveillance system and threaten to restart a nuclear plant and fuel processing facility shuttered in a 1994 nuclear freeze agreement. U.S. arms control experts believe North Korea could process enough plutonium to build a half-dozen nuclear weapons within months.

North Korea's escalation of a diplomatic conflict that had been building for several months represents a serious challenge to the White House at a time when policymakers have been consumed by the confrontation with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Even as Secretary of State Colin Powell telephoned allies to urge continued diplomatic pressure on the Pyongyang government, U.S. officials and analysts doubted a solution would develop soon.

At the nuclear power plant in Yongbyon, where 8,000 nuclear fuel containers are stored, workers yesterday continued breaking seals and covering video cameras. The North Koreans' mood was celebratory and defiant, reported international officials. Two nuclear inspectors remain on duty, but their ability to monitor events is now severely limited by the destruction of critical elements of the surveillance system.

"Our people can't be in all places at all times, and we can't know whether they've diverted any material for nuclear weapons," said Mark Gwozdecky, spokesman for the international atomic agency, in Vienna. He confirmed that the agency's board plans to meet Jan. 6, when it appears likely to refer the case to the U.N. Security Council.

U.S.-North Korean relations began to worsen in October when Pyongyang confirmed the existence of a secret nuclear weapons program uncovered by the Americans. The U.S. and its allies demanded an accounting and soon halted fuel oil shipments they had begun supplying in 1994 in return for North Korea's pledge to halt the weapons program. In defiance, the North Korean government announced that it would reactivate the reactor at Yongbyon to provide electricity to the fuel-strapped country.

Outside nuclear experts, however, describe the plant as a research reactor that would consume virtually all of the electricity it produced. Its principal purpose, U.S. officials contend, would be to produce the weapons-grade plutonium contained in its spent fuel.

The North Koreans have "reverted to their time-tested brinksmanship tactics," said William Drennan, a scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washinton. "They're taking advantage of a unique moment in time where the United States is obviously distracted by global terrorism and the prospect of war on Saddam Hussein, and the South Koreans are going through a presidential transition."

"There is a huge risk of miscalculation on both sides," Drennan said.

A senior administration official summed up U.S. policy as "being cool, calm and collected and not being overly alarmed about" the developments. The White House remains determined not to accede to what they consider blackmail. And, the official added, "there's not much else we can do."

In the 1990s, before the two sides negotiated the nuclear freeze, President Clinton strongly considered launching a pre-emptive strike to destroy the Yongbyon facility. That option, inherently risky, is less desirable this time because of likely resistance in South Korea and Japan, said Robert Gallucci, who negotiated the 1994 agreement. Nor are sanctions likely to work, he said.

That leaves either negotiations or a more passive containment policy, said Gallucci.

"The great irony," said Gallucci, "is that this administration, where there has been such enthusiasm about thinking hard thoughts about pre-emption, may be left with the defense and deterrent posture because it has made negotiations so untenable politically and almost morally."

The bottom line of the U.S. approach since the White House concluded a policy review in June 2001 is that bad behavior will not be rewarded. In other words, North Korea would not be granted concessions or favorable attention simply for halting violations of international agreements or otherwise acting in ways perceived as aggressive.

One senior U.S. official said yesterday that the administration intends to keep playing hardball. The administration is prepared to offer talks and a broader diplomatic opening, but only after North Korea takes verifiable steps to halt its secret nuclear weapons project.

The official predicted the Pyongyang government will grow "increasingly irritated" at the American refusal to negotiate, but in the end will "probably figure out some other way to talk" — perhaps through a third party.

The adminstration should be talking to the North Koreans now, said Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He said the White House is wrong not to talk with Pyongyang leaders until certain conditions are met. "We're all going to have to talk — talk continuously to South Korea, to North Korea, to Japan, be heavily engaged," Lugar said Sunday on Fox News.

Outgoing committee chairman Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., echoed the remark: "We cannot stiff-arm everyone out there. We've got to talk. We cannot let this get out of hand." He said North Korea presents "a greater danger immediately to U.S. interests" than Saddam.

A conciliatory move by Kim may take time.

"He feels like he's got a little wiggle room because we've got our plate so full of other things. It's always better to play your brinksmanship when the person on the other side of the table is preoccupied," the official said, conceding that President Bush and his top advisers cannot give North Korea as much attention as they might otherwise.

"The demands of the war on terrorism, a potential war with Iraq, the situation in Afghanistan and how delicate that is.... All of that does complicate things," the official said. "The human brain can only accomodate so many crises and deal with them wisely."