U.S. commander in Pacific requests air, naval forces

Extra military squadrons meant to deter N. Korea, Pentagon official says

February 01, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - The commander of American forces in the Pacific, Adm. Thomas B. Fargo, has requested additional air and naval forces as a deterrent against North Korea, in the first military response to the escalating crisis over the country's nuclear program, Pentagon officials said last night.

The request for several squadrons of warplanes has been under discussion for several days, a Pentagon official said. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has not approved the request, but the officials said he appeared inclined to grant Fargo's request to send the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson to the area. That way, the Korean Peninsula would not be left without full military coverage should the carrier Kitty Hawk, based in Japan, be sent to the Persian Gulf to help in an action against Iraq.

"These are deterrent-type forces that would be put in place," a Defense Department official said, while emphasizing that the administration's policy of pushing for a diplomatic solution to the North Korean crisis remained unchanged.

A senior Pentagon official called consideration of the request "very careful, prudent planning" that did not signal imminent military action.

The request, first reported on yesterday by CBS News, did not mention additional ground troops. This suggests that the forces requested by Fargo could be meant as assistance in the event that President Bush ordered any kind of pre-emptive strike against the North's nuclear complex at Yongbyon. Satellite photographs have revealed a flurry of activity at the complex since international inspectors were forced to leave on Dec. 31.

President Bill Clinton began a similar reinforcement in 1994, during the last nuclear crisis with North Korea.

Early yesterday, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, said it might be only a matter of "weeks and months" before North Korea began turning its stockpile of nuclear fuel into weapons. He urged that the issue be referred to the U.N. Security Council.

Only hours later, the White House played down the significance of the American spy satellite photographs of Yongbyon, insisting that it was too early to conclude that the North was racing to produce weapons.

Despite its differences with ElBaradei over the urgency of the Korea issue, the White House said yesterday that it would welcome the involvement of the Security Council. But an administration official said last night that the Security Council would simply be asked to pass a resolution or a statement, without threatening economic sanctions or isolation. "We want to take it to the Security Council, but not with any thought of immediate punitive action," the official said.

South Korea and China have warned the administration that sanctions would only deepen tensions with Kim Jong Il, the North's reclusive leader. In radio broadcasts, the North Korean government has said several times that it would regard sanctions as an act of aggression that would bring retaliation.

The administration's strategy, officials said yesterday, is to force North Korea to hear the condemnation of a number of nations - including Asian neighbors - in hopes of convincing North Korea's leaders that they will never get aid or investment while they pursue their nuclear programs. Bush, the aides say, is determined not to satisfy Kim - a man he once said he "loathed" - by turning the dispute into a confrontation with Washington alone. North Korean officials repeated yesterday that they would deal only with the United States, and would never negotiate with international organizations.

At the White House, officials veered between avoiding any alarms about the North's recent activities and warning the North that actually reprocessing fuel into plutonium would be a major mistake.

"Any steps toward beginning reprocessing would be yet another provocative action by North Korea intended to intimidate and blackmail the international community," Ari Fleischer, Bush's press secretary, told reporters.

Fleischer's comments were devoid of any threat against crossing what experts have long considered a "red line" - the beginning of production of plutonium. The Clinton administration declared in 1994 that it could not allow North Korea to develop a sizable nuclear arsenal, which could be used to threaten Japan or American troops in Asia.

Officials suggested that drawing such stark lines would only invite the North to test the administration's will. But some officials warn that North Korea could see the failure to issue a strong warning as a sign that it was free to produce weapons.

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