The United States says it may send long-range bombers to the Pacific Ocean to deter North Korea from seeking to attack a neighbor while the world's attention is focused on Iraq. Yet the Bush administration still insists that the issue of North Korea's nuclear-arms program is not a crisis -- a position that's raising eyebrows among some U.S. lawmakers.
Washington, 5 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The United States' No. 2 diplomat faced a barrage of tough questions on North Korea yesterday from U.S. senators concerned about how Washington is handling the issue of Pyongyang's nuclear-arms ambitions.
Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the administration of President George W. Bush will eventually have to sit down with North Korea to discuss its nuclear-weapons programs. "Of course, we're going to have to have direct talks with the North Koreans -- there's no question about it," Armitage said.
However, Armitage said that a "strong international framework" must first be present to have talks. U.S. officials later said that Armitage was referring to U.S. attempts to work within a group including South Korea, Japan, China, Russia, and the European Union.
But several senators of the opposition Democratic Party suggested they were dissatisfied with the Bush administration's approach thus far on North Korean policy.
Senator Barbara Boxer of California suggested that Bush's famous "axis of evil" speech early last year, which grouped North Korea with Iran and Iraq, had exacerbated things with Pyongyang, spurring the North Koreans to pursue nuclear weapons more actively in order to deter a possible U.S. attack.
Armitage said that both he and Secretary of State Colin Powell had read the "axis of evil" speech before it was delivered and found nothing wrong with the phrase. He said that they both felt the phrase was "fitting."
Boxer said that she believed the phrase might be equally fitting for a number of the world's dictatorships but insisted that diplomacy demands nuance.
The California senator then asked if Armitage or Powell ever considered the reaction that the "axis of evil" label might elicit from North Korea. When Armitage said no, Boxer repeated the question: "You just felt it was fitting, and you didn't really get into the reaction [it might elicit from North Korea]?"
"That's exactly correct, Senator," Armitage said.
Armitage spoke as a South Korean envoy met with Powell in Washington. Chyung Dai-chul, an envoy from South Korean President-elect Roh Moo-hyun, told reporters that he urged Washington to seek dialogue with Pyongyang more actively.
With world attention riveted on Iraq, U.S. media also reported yesterday that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has put 24 long-range bombers on alert for possible deployment to the Korean region to give the U.S. military options should diplomacy fail to persuade Pyongyang to stop building nuclear weapons.
Armitage, asked about those reports, said they represented simple "prudent military planning" and that no forces have yet been deployed. He said the United States is concerned that North Korea may try to attack South Korea or Japan with conventional, or, in a less likely scenario, nuclear weapons.
At a Pentagon briefing, Rumsfeld declined to comment on the reports.
Last October, Washington said Pyongyang had admitted to enriching uranium in violation of a 1994 accord under which it froze its nuclear program in exchange for two energy-generating reactors and free fuel.
Since December, North Korea has expelled International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors, withdrawn from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, restarted a mothballed nuclear complex capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium, and threatened to resume missile tests.
Last week, U.S. media reported that U.S. intelligence sources believe North Korea is moving spent nuclear fuel rods out of the nuclear complex at Yongbyon for possible use in building bombs.
Ashton Carter worked on the 1994 Agreed Framework deal with North Korea as assistant secretary of defense under former President Bill Clinton. Mincing no words, Carter told the Senate panel: "What is going on at Yongbyon as we speak is a huge foreign-policy defeat for the United States and a setback for decades of U.S. nonproliferation policy."
Both Carter and Armitage agreed that the gravest threat to U.S. security in North Korea's nuclear program comes from the possibility that Pyongyang could sell bombs, or the fissile material to make them, to rogue states or global terrorist groups. "But as this 'loose nukes' disaster unfolds, and the options for dealing with it narrow, the world does nothing. This is especially ironic as the world prepares to disarm Iraq of chemical and biological weapons, by force if necessary," Carter said.
But Armitage reiterated that the Bush administration does not view North Korea as immediately threatening as Iraq, mainly because Baghdad, unlike Pyongyang, violated United Nations disarmament resolutions for 12 years and invaded its neighbors twice.
Pressed by Democratic Senator Joseph Biden, Armitage sought to further explain why the Bush administration refuses to acknowledge a crisis situation in North Korea. "We really are pushing back on the notion of crisis, not because it has anything to do with Iraq, but because why tell the other guy he's gotten your attention so much?" Armitage said.
Earlier yesterday, North Korea dismissed U.S. offers of dialogue. Its official "Rodong Sinmun" newspaper accused the United States of pursuing a "policy of evil against the Korean nation, its reunification, and peace."
In Vienna, the IAEA said on 3 February that its governing board would hold an emergency session on 12 February on the nuclear crisis. IAEA chief Mohammad el-Baradei said the agency is likely to hand over the North Korea issue to the Security Council.
Secretary of State Powell is today scheduled to present intelligence information on Iraq's alleged weapons-of-mass-destruction programs to the Security Council.