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

Kim leaves U.S. no easy solutions

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post

WASHINGTON — U.S. officials see no simple way to stop the nuclear maneuvers of enigmatic North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

Some senior U.S. intelligence analysts believe Kim intends to build nuclear weapons whether or not the international community offers concessions. The construction of an atomic arsenal, this thinking goes, would offer North Korea the stature and leverage that Kim has long craved.

"It may use the current situation to extract concessions, but there is no reason to doubt that Pyongyang will continue," a senior official said yesterday.

The administration is facing increasing political pressure to talk with Kim's government, which blames the United States for the emerging crisis. Leading Republican and Democratic foreign policy voices in the Senate have called on Bush to open discussions — a step the administration believes would demonstrate weakness and invite further brinkmanship.

U.S. policymakers and their spokesmen, mindful of Kim's history of building a sense of crisis to win economic and diplomatic favors, have steadfastly avoided any hint of worry as North Korea has dismantled a 1994 nuclear agreement. Indeed, a high-ranking official yesterday asserted that "no one's really concerned right now."

The Bush administration, surprised by the speed of North Korea's defiant reopening of the shuttered Yongbyon nuclear facility, intends to refer the matter to the United Nations as part of a policy one official described yesterday as "isolate and contain."

Rejecting direct negotiations as unpalatable and a military strike as presently untenable, the administration expects to seek the censure of North Korea at an emergency meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency governing board in early January, officials said.

They said if Pyongyang still refuses to back down, the matter likely would be referred to the U.N. Security Council, where the administration would try to muster greater pressure on North Korea, particularly from China. U.S. officials are anxious to avoid a distracting confrontation with Pyongyang as the conflict with Iraq intensifies.

Kim has many moves he can yet make if his ambition is escalation, officials point out, and many experts outside the administration believe a crisis may be boiling.

"It may be too late to stop what's going on in North Korea," said Joel Wit, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It's still possible this is some sort of negotiating tactic, but the weight of evidence is that they may have decided to start building up their nuclear weapons stockpile."

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."

At that point, some experts say, the facilities should be bombed.

"They should take 'em out. The stakes are too high for the United States to play around with it," said Leon Charney, a former foreign policy adviser to President Jimmy Carter. "The real deal is that in probably 90 days, these guys will have nuclear bombs. They know that we're preoccupied with Iraq. They think they can play with us."