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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, December 28, 2002

North Korea calls for ouster of inspectors

By Alissa J. Rubin and Paul Richter
Los Angeles Times

VIENNA, Austria — North Korea on Friday ordered U.N. inspectors off its soil, escalating a confrontation with the United States and its allies and moving an important step closer to a resumption of its nuclear arms program.

In a letter to the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency, North Korea said that because it intends to reopen its nuclear facilities and restart a plutonium-reprocessing plant, the inspectors "have no justification to stay in our country any longer."

In Vienna, the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohammed Baradei, decried the move and insisted that the three inspectors remain, for now, at North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear complex. Departure of the inspectors "would practically bring an end to our ability to monitor (North Korea's) nuclear program, or assess its nature," Baradei said.

The inspectors have been in the country as part of a 1994 agreement under which North Korea eschewed a nuclear weapons program in exchange for energy assistance.

Pyongyang's demand was the latest in a series of moves that have been thrust on a Bush administration that is preoccupied with preparations for a possible war against Iraq.

Although the United States has played down the danger of North Korea's nuclear actions, Friday's moves appeared to get the attention of the rest of the world, which in turn might pressure the United States into engaging the Asian country.

The difficult judgment for international players is how to deal with North Korea, which is at once a rogue country when it comes to nuclear proliferation, but also deeply impoverished, with a civilian population that has suffered starvation and repression at the hands of the regime.

There is one school of thought, favored by the Bush administration, that it sends the wrong message to reward those who act up. But others suggest that refusing to have any dialogue with the country can have long-running repercussions throughout the region, where U.S. allies such as South Korea and Japan are at direct risk.

The White House insisted again Friday that it will make no concessions to a regime that is violating the agreement to give up its nuclear program.

"We will not negotiate in response to threats or broken commitments," Scott McClellan, a White House spokesman, said from Crawford, Texas, where President Bush is spending the holiday. He described the expulsion demand as "yet another violation" by a country that he said has been guilty of several breaches of its commitments to halt the nuclear effort.

At the same time, U.S. officials sought to play down the potential for a military confrontation and said they believe the solution lies in diplomatic pressure from the United States and allies in the region.

Experts said the expulsion of the inspectors would mean that North Korea secretly could draw plutonium from its long-monitored inventory of spent fuel rods and build as many as five new nuclear weapons, perhaps as soon as next summer. They warned that such a step would destabilize northeast Asia and encourage other countries around the world to cast aside their commitments not to embark on nuclear programs. "This will shatter the system of treaties and restraints," said Joseph Circincione, director of nonproliferation studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C.

North Korea is moving to restart the nuclear program partly in hopes of forcing U.S. concessions, and partly out of a desire to build a nuclear arsenal to ensure the regime's security, U.S. officials and experts say.

The impoverished country wants more aid, including fuel oil; supplies were cut off in the fall after North Korea disclosed it had been pursuing a secret uranium-enrichment program. Uranium, like plutonium, can be used to build a nuclear bomb.

But some experts said the speed of North Korea's recent steps suggests that the Stalinist regime might be more interested in building the arsenal than in squeezing additional concessions from the United States. If concessions were the goal, North Korea probably would be moving more slowly, and allowing more time for pressure to build on the United States, they said.

Joel S. Wit, a Korea specialist who was an official in the Clinton administration, said the expulsion order marks "a big change." He said the rapid pace of North Korea's moves makes it "more and more likely that they're not interested in negotiations."

He said that if the North Koreans take the next step and actually restart the reprocessing plant, "we can conclude they're definitely not interested in talking."