North Korea's revelation catches U.S. off guard

No strategy is in place for broken no-nukes pact

October 18, 2002|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - In the midst of a mounting confrontation with Iraq, Bush administration officials conceded yesterday that they don't yet have a plan for dealing with nuclear weapons development in a second nation that the president has dubbed part of an "axis of evil": North Korea.

Two high-level U.S. envoys arrived in Asia yesterday to confer on a strategy with China, South Korea and Japan after North Korea's startling admission that it has a program to produce highly enriched uranium, a fuel for nuclear weapons.

But officials said the administration had not decided whether to scrap a 1994 agreement with Pyongyang, despite what they said was North Korea's "severe violation" of the pact.

"We're studying the situation, consulting with our allies, but at this point we haven't made the decisions," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.

The 1994 "Agreed Framework" required North Korea to freeze its nuclear weapons program in exchange for two new, comparatively safe nuclear reactors for providing electricity.

U.S. officials concluded last summer that North Korea was seeking to develop enriched uranium. Previously, it was known to have enough plutonium, another nuclear fuel, for one or two weapons.

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said yesterday, "I believe they have a small number of nuclear weapons."

U.S. officials were caught off-guard when Pyongyang unexpectedly and defiantly admitted it has a program for uranium enrichment just hours after being confronted with evidence by Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly early this month.

And before the Bush administration could assemble a strategy for dealing with this latest move by North Korea, it was forced to disclose the admission as news organizations seemed on the verge of publishing it.

"You're asking what we're going to do before we have a plan," said a senior official.

North Korea's admission threw into uncertainty a policy toward North Korea that has been the focus of sharp battles inside the administration.

Last year, President Bush abandoned the approach adopted by the Clinton administration of trying to engage North Korea in a dialogue and holding out the prospect of growing economic ties that would relieve its ravaged economy.

This past January, in his State of the Union address, Bush lumped North Korea together with Iraq and Iran in what he called "an axis of evil." More recently, however, the administration has swung closer to the Clinton approach.

Daniel Poneman, an adviser on North Korea to both the first President Bush and President Clinton, voiced sympathy for the administration yesterday. "I don't see a lot of attractive policy options," he said.

A White House spokesman said Bush found the latest disclosure about North Korea "troubling, sobering news." But the president, adopting a low-key posture, made no mention of North Korea yesterday.

Despite the threat that North Korea poses to Japan and South Korea, two economically vital U.S. allies in the Pacific, the administration has embarked on a markedly difference course than the one it has pursued with Iraq.

First, it has decided to work with other countries at the outset. Second, all administration statements since the first disclosure Wednesday night have stressed Bush's desire for a peaceful solution.

In the case of Iraq, Bush demanded that it abandon all weapons of mass destruction, announced an American goal of removing the regime of Saddam Hussein, and made clear that the use of military force was perhaps the only reliable option.

Asked about the different approaches yesterday, Boucher said Bush believes "Iraq is a unique situation," not only because it has repeatedly defied the United Nations' calls for it to disarm, but because of its ties to terrorism and past use of poison gas against Kurds in northern Iraq and Iran. Unlike North Korea, Iraq has also invaded neighboring countries in the recent past.

"I think there are differences [between North Korea and Iraq] but there are parallels here, too. One parallel that I believe is here - North Korea agreed to do something, and they didn't do it," Sen. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican who is the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told News Hour with Jim Lehrer last night.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, said: "Two things have to be done immediately. First, they have to open up their country to allow inspections to examine the facilities. And second, they have to agree to destroy whatever weapons of mass destruction they have. That has to be a commitment."

In some ways, North Korea poses a greater threat to the United States and its allies than does Iraq because it has hundreds of thousands of troops arrayed along the border with South Korea, where more than 30,000 American troops are stationed; an active chemical weapons program; and an arsenal of missiles capable of reaching Japan.

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