Next crisis at hand

April 22, 2003|By Richard Halloran

THE NORTH Koreans, running true to form, have sowed consternation and confusion in Washington, Tokyo and Seoul for the past 10 days with a series of tactical twists and turns.

At issue have been North Korea's plans to acquire nuclear weapons, which President Bush has vowed to stop. The North Koreans seemed to back down on conditions under which they would negotiate, then trapped the administration into accepting their setting. They put out inconsistent reports on the status of their nuclear program and broadcast a mixture of belligerent and conciliatory statements.

In the end, these antics led to scheduling a meeting of U.S. and North Korean officials from Pyongyang and Washington in Beijing tomorrow to begin negotiations.

It was not clear, however, that the meeting would take place. The administration has been debating the proposal and, even if Mr. Bush decided to go ahead, the North Koreans have been known to cancel a meeting at the last minute or not show up.

What has become increasingly clear is that the "Dear Leader" of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Kim Jong Il, has determined that his nation will become a nuclear power. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea allegedly already has two nuclear weapons and is preparing to produce about one a month.

Peter Hayes, an experienced Pyongyang-watcher in California at the Nautilus Institute for research and political action, wrote Friday: "Now, it appears that they [North Koreans] are obsessed with obtaining nuclear weapons and have made a strategic decision to commit to this course."

Mr. Hayes' comments followed similar assessments recently from Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, retired diplomats who have dealt with North Korea, Japanese defense officials, South Korean analysts and scholars specializing in North Korean affairs.

This leaves the Bush administration with three options:

Capitulate. Only by giving in to North Korea's demands can the administration hope to turn Kim Jong Il from his set course.

Those demands include a pact precluding the United States from attacking North Korea, a withdrawal of American forces from South Korea, diplomatic recognition, economic aid and favorable trade conditions. A non-aggression pact with North Korea would call into question treaties with Japan and South Korea that oblige the United States to come to their defense if they are attacked.

Even if the United States were to accede to North Korea's demands, there would be no guarantee that Pyongyang would not go nuclear. North Korea has broken several nuclear agreements in the past and has vowed not to admit inspectors to verify its compliance with agreements. .

Accept. If the Bush administration cannot dissuade North Korea, the United States will be forced to live with -- and deter -- North Korea as a nuclear power. The consequence may be an East Asian nuclear arms race.

South Koreans have the capability to produce nuclear weapons. Japan, which generates nearly 30 percent of its electricity with nuclear power, could make weapons if the Japanese overcome the "nuclear allergy" remaining from the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II.

Taiwan has the capacity to make nuclear arms, which would add an enormous complication to the dispute over the island's future. Taiwan has been inching toward independence while China, which has a large nuclear arsenal and claims sovereignty over Taiwan, has threatened to use military force to prevent that independence.

Attack. Mr. Bush, who has embraced a doctrine of pre-emptive strikes, could order U.S. military forces to bomb North Korea's nuclear facilities with conventional weapons without hitting the reactors and releasing radiation.

The North Koreans, who have deployed large military forces close to the demilitarized zone that divides the peninsula, have vowed to mount a massive attack on South Korea and possibly Japan if the United States strikes first. The United States, which has 37,000 troops in South Korea, and South Korea, which has a well-trained army, would almost certainly defeat the North Koreans, but the cost in blood would be horrendous.

One more hurdle: North and South Korea are technically still at war, the Korean War of 1950-1953 having ended in a truce. The North Koreans have refused to sign a peace treaty with the South Koreans as that would recognize South Korea's right to exist.

In sum, Mr. Bush and his advisers are being confronted with a new and potentially costly crisis even as they relish the swift victory that American forces have scored over Iraq.

Richard Halloran is an author and free-lance journalist who specializes in East Asia and the U.S. military. He lives in Honolulu.

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