U.S. ponders response to N. Korea test
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By Mark Silva
By Mark Silva
WASHINGTON — For years, the Clinton administration attempted to negotiate directly with North Korea to avert the development of nuclear weaponry on the volatile peninsula.
For the past three years, the Bush administration has attempted to negotiate through an alliance of Asian nations, with President Bush refusing to negotiate directly with the regime of Kim Jong Il since talks broke down over enrichment of nuclear fuel.
Now, with the apparent testing of an underground nuclear device yesterday in North Korea, it has become dramatically clear that neither tactic worked.
Critics contend that the United States now is paying the price for not paying closer attention to North Korea's nuclear ambitions over three decades — with the challenge of dissuading a hostile regime from developing a nuclear weapons program now turning to the far more difficult task of containing a nuclear arsenal that already exists.
"It suggests that we're in for a rough go here," said Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center and a former Defense Department specialist in nuclear nonproliferation in President George H.W. Bush's administration.
"This isn't the worst. This is the beginning of the worst," Sokolski said. "The world is watching how we are going to deal with North Korea."
The current Bush administration insists that North Korea's apparent show of nuclear force will not alter its refusal to negotiate directly — relying instead on an alliance of Asian nations for negotiations that have been stalled for a year, while counting on the United Nations Security Council to take action for what Bush has called a "provocative" act.
Since 2003, the United States has hoped that the so-called Six Party Talks with North Korea — involving China, Russia, Japan, South Korea and the U.S. — would avert the development of nuclear weaponry, which Bush has termed "unacceptable." The U.S. has particularly counted on China's perceived ability to influence the North Koreans.
Talks broke off last fall after North Korea refused to return to the table. In their last communique before negotiations stalled, all the parties reasserted a goal of a "verifiable de-nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula."
Yet now, with the reported detonation of an underground nuclear device, critics say North Korea has passed the point of negotiations.
Worse yet for the U.S. and its allies, critics say, North Korea's flouting of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which it abandoned years ago, is likely to embolden other nations, such as Iran, that are interested in pursuing nuclear technology and possibly atomic weapons. And the Bush administration now finds itself in the position of trying to persuade the U.N. to punish North Korea for its apparent testing of weaponry after never punishing North Korea for developing that weaponry.
The United States circulated a draft U.N. resolution late yesterday that would condemn North Korea's nuclear test and impose tough sanctions on the reclusive communist nation for Pyongyang's "flagrant disregard" of the Security Council's appeal not to detonate a device.
The draft, obtained by The Associated Press, incorporates proposals circulated by the U.S. earlier in the day to prohibit all trade in military and luxury goods and crack down on illegal financial dealings.
It adds new calls from Japan to ban all countries from allowing any North Korean ships in their ports or any North Korean aircraft from taking off or landing in their territory if they carried arms, nuclear or ballistic missile-related material or luxury goods.
The U.S. draft also seeks to prevent any North Korean financial transactions resulting from illicit counterfeiting, money-laundering and narcotics, and "any abuses of the international financial system" that could contribute to the transfer or development of banned weapons.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said today that military action against North Korea "would be unimaginable."
Liu Jiantao said members of the Security Council were not considering force at this point, "so this is positive."
President Bush insisted yesterday that "the United States remains committed to diplomacy."
Yet, after initially attempting to negotiate one-on-one with Pyongyang — as previous White Houses had done — Bush insists that the six-party talks are more effective than giving in and talking to the North Koreans directly.
"The administration has felt that this was the proper approach," said Fred Jones, a spokesman for the National Security Council. "Other approaches of previous administrations were not working as well, so we decided to have North Korea's neighbors buy into this process.
"I know there will be a lot of second guessing," he said. "The pundits are already out there."
U.S. POLICY CRITICIZED
The pundits aren't the only critics. With the November congressional elections looming, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid yesterday called the apparent test a dramatic sign of the administration's "failed North Korea policy."
"The Bush administration has for several years been in a state of denial about the growing challenge of North Korea, and has too often tried to downplay the issue or change the subject," said Reid, D-Nev. "Now the White House must rally the international community and must directly speak with the North Koreans so they understand we will not continue to stand on the sidelines."
While the U.S. refuses to negotiate directly with North Korea, the Bush administration says it did warn Kim's government directly against the threatened nuclear test through a diplomatic back path known as "the New York channel." Similar protests were conveyed through New York after North Korea's testing of ballistic missiles in early July.
But the breakdown in U.S.-North Korean relations runs far deeper than the current administration's insistence on averting direct negotiations.
"How did we get here? Thirty-four years of blinking, bending the rules and groveling, roughly in that order," Sokolski said. "If somebody wants to pick on President Clinton or President Bush, they really don't understand how rich the target is. ... It really goes much further."
In 1985, North Korea signed on to the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear weapons state. But North Korea threatened to withdraw in 1993 after it was discovered that the country already had developed a nuclear reactor.
The next year, North Korea reached an agreement with the Clinton administration. Kim's regime promised to freeze and eventually scrap its nuclear weapons program and the U.S. offered to help build two nuclear reactors to produce electricity. North Korea agreed to allow inspectors.
But early in the Bush administration, the U.S. accused North Korea of clandestinely furthering its enrichment of nuclear fuel for the purpose of making weapons. Direct negotiations broke down. Soon afterward, Bush labeled North Korea part of the "axis of evil," further straining relations. North Korea evicted the inspectors in late 2002.
About two years later, North Korea announced publicly for the first time that it had nuclear weapons. Kim's regime said it "manufactured nukes for self-defense" because of the U.S. threat.
Yesterday, it claimed to have tested a nuclear weapon for the first time.
Now, it is no longer a question of suspending the enrichment of nuclear fuel. It is a question of containing a nation on the verge of becoming a nuclear force.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.