The United States says North Korea has acknowledged that, contrary to its international obligations, it has pursued a secret nuclear weapons program for the last eight years. The news comes at a busy time for American diplomacy. But U.S. officials and analysts say it won't detract Washington from focusing on Iraq and the war on terror.
Washington, 18 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Already grappling with a war on terrorism and a possible military showdown with Iraq, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush now faces another major foreign policy challenge: the specter of a nuclear-armed North Korea.
The Bush administration announced on 16 October that North Korea, when confronted with U.S. evidence, had admitted to pursuing a secret nuclear arms program for the last eight years in violation of an agreement with the U.S. on freezing its nuclear weapons program.
Officials went on to say that North Korea likely had foreign help for the program, but did not elaborate. But an article in 18 October's "New York Times" cites current and former U.S. officials as saying Pakistan -- a key ally in the U.S.-led war on terror -- was a major supplier of equipment for North Korea's weapons program.
The U.S. also says that North Korea, which has not commented on the matter, told Washington it considered that 1994 agreement on nuclear arms to no longer be valid.
As the State Department called on North Korea on 17 October to dismantle its nuclear weapons program, a Bush spokesman said the president considers the revelation to be "troubling, sobering news." But unlike Iraq, which Bush has threatened with war if it fails to disarm, the president believes the North Korean issue should be solved through diplomacy, the spokesman said.
Some analysts say Pyongyang's admission is yet another signal that North Korea -- a Stalinist, poverty-stricken society that ignored communism's fall around the world in 1989 -- is seeking to open up to the world. North Korea has taken recent steps to normalize ties with Japan, apologized for an attack on a South Korean ship last summer, and eliminated its communist food-rationing system.
But U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, speaking at a Washington briefing on 17 October, said he sees nothing positive in North Korea having a nuclear bomb. "I don't think there's any way in the world anyone could say it's a good sign."
The specter of a nuclear conflict on the Korean peninsula, divided since the 1950-1953 war, comes as the Bush administration is already engaged in a war on terrorism and the possibility of armed conflict with Iraq, which it also accuses of harboring weapons of mass destruction.
But while Bush has called North Korea part of an axis of evil with Iran and Iraq, U.S. officials insist that each country merits its own policy. Both Rumsfeld and the White House said on 17 October that Iraq is unique, since its President Saddam Hussein has already used weapons of mass destruction and invaded neighboring countries.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher put it this way: "There's not one policy that fits all. Each situation has to be dealt with on its own. We want to deal with this situation peacefully with regard to North Korea, and we'll make the appropriate decisions."
But more than Saddam's uniqueness, analysts say the real issue is that war with Pyongyang is simply not an option for Washington.
The U.S. keeps nearly 40,000 troops in South Korea as a deterrent to a powerful North Korean military of more than one million soldiers, 70 percent of which are focused on the border with South Korea. In addition, North Korea has about 12,000 artillery pieces aimed at Seoul, and conventional wisdom says those weapons would virtually wipe out the southern capital in the early hours of any Korean war.
James Lilley, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea and China, is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. Lilley makes this point:
"There's no military option in Korea. There is one in Iraq. There's none in North Korea. It would just be an armageddon, it would just be terrible. The conventional forces they have, their track record would indicate that they would inflict incredibly large damage on South Korea."
The State Department says North Korea revealed the existence of its nuclear program two weeks ago during talks in Pyongyang with James Kelly, a top American diplomat. When Kelly presented U.S. intelligence on North Korea's program to develop enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb, North Korea angrily denied the allegation.
But the next day, the North Koreans acknowledged the project, adding that they have "more powerful things as well" -- a statement U.S. officials interpret as referring to biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction.
U.S. officials say they are still uncertain whether North Korea's program has yielded a nuclear bomb. But the Central Intelligence Agency, or CIA, estimated in 1994 that North Korea had already diverted plutonium from a nuclear energy reactor to build one or two crude nuclear weapons.
Rumsfeld says the U.S. may be in the dark on just what weapons the North Koreans actually possess, but he believes they do have something:
"I have not touched (seen) them [North Korea's suspected nuclear weapons], [U.S. intelligence officials] have not touched them, no one that I would have any confidence in their judgment has touched them. But I believe they [North Koreans] have a small number of nuclear weapons."
Fearing that Pyongyang was using its nuclear energy sector for an arms program, the U.S. negotiated a 1994 deal to freeze North Korea's nuclear projects. In exchange, Pyongyang has received U.S.-supplied oil and aid to build light-water nuclear reactors to produce energy -- but not weapons.
With that deal now all but dead, U.S. officials have a range of options to try and get North Korea to cooperate and open its arms programs to United Nations inspectors. These include suspending U.S. supplies of heavy fuel oil, halting construction of the two light-water nuclear energy reactors -- which are funded by South Korea and Japan -- and seeking a halt to international food and fuel supplies.
A senior U.S. official told reporters in Washington that the United States is consulting China, South Korea, Japan, Russia, and other nations. The official suggested that Russia and China might exercise leverage against North Korea by restricting trade.
But Lilley, who has also served as assistant secretary of state and defense for East Asian affairs, says Washington has its own leverage on North Korea since it supplies the impoverished state with a lot of economic aid.
"They're getting a tremendous amount. From us alone, it's something like $600 to $700 million [since 1994]. The heavy oil we've been giving them every year runs about $80 million [per year]. We've been giving that to them for seven years. That's a lot of money. That would be put in considerable jeopardy. That's the kind of leverage you want when you bargain with them."
Lilley added that he believes the North Korea problem will not distract the U.S. from focusing on Iraq and the war on terrorism.
Just why North Korea decided to come clean and acknowledge its nuclear program now is unclear, according to U.S. officials.
Some analysts speculate that the Stalinist state is looking for a way out of its dire economic predicament and diplomatic isolation. They say acknowledging the existence of its nuclear arms program is part of a series of steps North Korea has recently taken to open up to the world, including the brief return to Japan this week of Japanese nationals Pyongyang kidnapped decades ago for espionage purposes.
Bush supporters are already claiming victory for the president's hard-line approach, saying it has forced North Korea to make all of these apparent concessions.
Paolo Pasicolan, an analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, calls North Korea's acknowledgment an "embarrassment" for European leaders, who chastised Bush for his "axis of evil" speech and sought to counter his hard-line policy by seeking to engage North Korea.
"The Bush administration and the Pentagon have clearly shown no qualms about going after rogue states who have the capability to threaten the United States' national security. And certainly that plays an element in the decision-making of the North Koreans as well."
Meanwhile, Kelly and Undersecretary of State John Bolton arrived in Beijing on 17 October for talks with Chinese leaders. Kelly will then head on to Seoul and Tokyo for talks on the issue.
Bush is also likely to discuss the issue next week when he hosts Chinese President Jiang Zemin at his Texas ranch.