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U.S.: Washington Faces Diplomatic Dilemma In Dealing With North Korea

American diplomacy under President George W. Bush has made ample use of the threat of force in a bid to make countries like Iraq change their ways. But the problem of North Korea, which apparently admitted it has a nuclear-arms program, allows for no easy military answers.

Washington, 1 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush's "axis of evil" is proving to be a hard nut to crack -- nowhere more so than on the divided Korean peninsula.

In a bombshell announcement last month, Washington said Pyongyang, after being confronted with U.S. evidence, had admitted to pursuing a program to enrich uranium in a bid to build nuclear weapons -- in violation of its international agreements.

But in an indication of the military stalemate on the Korean peninsula -- where the North could respond to a U.S. strike by destroying the South -- the Bush administration is ruling out any Iraqi-type military solution to Pyongyang's "nuclear revelation."

Instead, as its allies Japan and South Korea seek to engage the North, Washington is looking for a peaceful way to disarm Pyongyang, which wants direct talks and a nonaggression pact with the United States.

For now, the United States is demanding that North Korea disarm before there can be any talk about direct negotiations. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said: "No North Korean child can eat enriched uranium. No North Korean peasant is going to get a job enriching uranium. It [nuclear program] is fool's gold for North Korea."

But with military action out of the question, the Bush team is still debating its strategy on North Korea. The main options are engaging the North in hopes of convincing it to trade its nuclear-arms program for economic aid, or further isolation.

Raymond Tanter is a professor at the University of Michigan and was a member of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan's National Security Council. Tanter, an expert on policy toward "rogue states," said Powell is seen favoring engagement while Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other "hawks" support isolation. "The second school says that you let North Korea fall, you let it implode. When North Korea says, 'Feed me or I'll die and my body politic will infect your friends,' this school says let it die and it will implode like East Germany did. And South Korea will pick up the pieces like West Germany picked up the pieces," Tanter said.

While Powell's approach appears to be the administration's likely road map, U.S. officials say the matter is not settled. Analysts say the final policy may combine aspects of both approaches.

Yet each appears fraught with risk.

On the one hand, Washington can have little hope that Pyongyang will respect any future agreement, even as the United States seeks to prod North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il toward a new disarmament deal. On the other hand, further isolation would give North Korea a free hand to continue its weapons-of-mass-destruction programs and leave the door open for China, Pyongyang's main ally, to extend its influence.

To complicate matters, North Korea reportedly sees the Bush administration's threatening rhetoric as de facto violation of agreements on mutual recognition. These include the 1994 Agreed Framework, in which North Korea agreed to scrap its nuclear-arms program in exchange for U.S. supplies of heavy fuel oil and aid to build two light-water nuclear reactors, as well as a joint 2000 statement pledging to respect each other's sovereignty.

The United States says North Korea first denied and then later acknowledged having a nuclear program after being presented with evidence of its existence during recent talks in Pyongyang with U.S. diplomat James Kelly.

But South Korean and Russian officials question the U.S. version of what happened. Russia this week asked the United States to clarify the story, saying it has seen no evidence of Pyongyang's nuclear programs.

Alexandre Mansourov is a North Korea analyst for the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, a U.S. government policy institute in Honolulu. Mansourov, emphasizing that he is speaking for himself and not the U.S. government, told RFE/RL that he too questions the extent of Pyongyang's nuclear program and believes America's version of North Korea's "revelation" could be misleading.

Mansourov said something different probably transpired. He said Kelly demanded North Korea dramatically change on several issues -- human rights, export of ballistic missiles, and development of weapons of mass destruction -- or else face the "dire consequences" of U.S. policy in a post-11 September world.

North Korea, Mansourov said, saw Kelly's presentation as a barely veiled threat, similar to what Washington has proposed for Baghdad. "There was no 'revelation.' It was a broad policy statement on the part of the North Koreans, basically saying that if you walk away from the Agreed Framework, if you look at us as a threat, and if you designate us as a target for your preemptive strikes, then we have the right to do anything in our power, including developing a nuclear program to defend ourselves," Mansourov said.

Peter Hayes directs the Nautilus Institute, a liberal think tank based in Berkeley, California. A North Korea expert who has visited the country several times, Hayes agrees with Mansourov. He said the United States has reason not to trust North Korea, but Pyongyang also has little reason to trust Washington. "The only solution at the moment that conforms to the rhetoric of the [Bush] administration and its pronounced positions is self-destruction for the North Koreans. And why would they do that?" Hayes said.

Bush supporters claim their hard line has forced North Korea to reveal its nuclear program. They say it's one of several "concessions" the North has made in recent months. Others include an apology for attacking a South Korean boat, admitting to abducting Japanese nationals, and taking steps to reform the state-run economy.

But Mansourov said changes in North Korea have been afoot for at least four years and run deeper than the U.S. media have reported. He said Kim Jong-Il is seen by some analysts as a potential North Korean Mikhail Gorbachev, whose reforms led to the Soviet Union's demise. "North Korea is changing. It's a different country than it was eight years ago -- different leadership, different problems, and the regime itself is changing. It's opening up, it's reforming its economy, it's increasing transparency. And clearly it indicated time and again its willingness to sell out, basically, to give it up -- if we start talking to them," Mansourov said.

For his part, Hayes scoffs at the idea that Washington's hard line has scared Pyongyang into opening up. "This is a country that is willing to have hundreds of thousands of its citizens starve rather than submit to external pressure. The idea that they can be manipulated that easily is simply, to put it mildly, incorrect," Hayes said.

Some U.S. pundits have urged Washington to seek a broad alliance with regional powers -- China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea -- to entice the North to accept economic business aid in a strategy aimed ultimately at the demise of the Pyongyang regime.

Hayes and Mansourov, however, dismiss the notion that China -- North Korea's key ally and supplier of food and fuel -- will ever do America's bidding on North Korea.

Both say that while China is hardly happy about a nuclear North Korea, Beijing views the country as a strategic bulwark against the U.S. military, which has 37,000 troops in the South, and U.S. and Japanese influences on the peninsula.

But Tanter, the former Reagan White House official, disagrees. He said China is a key U.S. trading partner and has every reason to want economic modernization on the Korean peninsula. He said U.S. policy will seek to lead regional powers, including China, in a strategy that could lead to the demise of Kim Jong-Il's regime. "At issue is whether or not the American approach of what I would call coercive diplomacy will work to contain North Korea. And I think it will," Tanter said.

On Wednesday, a small group of U.S. lawmakers urged Bush to impose sanctions on North Korea and to nullify the Agreed Framework, which Pyongyang says is already null and void. The State Department says it has yet to make any decisions about sanctions.