For the first time, U.S. officials have said they believe North Korea has the capability to hit the West Coast of the United States with nuclear-tipped missiles. As RFE/RL reports, the revelation is just one more reason for Americans to be jittery.
Washington, 13 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- With Americans skittish about terrorist attacks at home, a possible war with Iraq and a slumping domestic economy, what more could they be worried about? How about a nuclear strike by North Korea?
For the first time, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has confirmed that Pyongyang has the capability of hitting the western United States with nuclear-tipped missiles.
The announcement was made yesterday by CIA Director George Tenet during a hearing by the Senate Armed Services Committee. It came as the United Nations nuclear agency ruled that North Korea is in breach of atomic safeguards.
Senator Evan Bayh asked the CIA chief about North Korea's ability to inflict damage on the United States: "What is the likelihood that [the North Koreans] currently have a missile capable of hitting the West Coast of the United States?"
Tenet, pausing to confer with officials behind him, replied, "I think the declassified answer is, yes, they can do that."
Tenet said the North Koreans probably have one or two "plutonium-based devices" today.
It is the first time the United States has publicly acknowledged that North Korea has such a missile capability, though media reports have long asserted that Pyongyang's long-range missiles could probably hit the West Coast.
Even if the North Korean missile has not yet been tested, leaving some questions about its performance ability, yesterday's news added to a flurry of recent developments, including the apparent resurfacing of fugitive terrorist Osama bin Laden, that have left Americans increasingly jittery about the future.
Raymond Tanter, a member of former President Ronald Reagan's National Security Council, told RFE/RL that apart from the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks, these are the most nerve-wracking days he can remember since the Berlin Wall went up and the world was threatened with nuclear war over Soviet missiles in Cuba in the early 1960s. "These are the most tense times since the sequence of events beginning with the Berlin crises [the airlift in 1948 and the construction of the Berlin Wall] and culminating in the Cuban missile crisis, from '61 to '62," Tanter said.
The crisis over North Korea's nuclear ambitions erupted last October when Washington said Pyongyang had admitted to pursuing a secret program to enrich uranium in violation of its international commitments.
Pyongyang has since expelled United Nations nuclear inspectors, withdrawn from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, restarted the mothballed Yongbyon nuclear reactor capable of producing plutonium to make nuclear bombs, and threatened to resume missile tests.
Pyongyang is demanding direct talks with the United Nations and a nonaggression pact. Washington has granted neither, saying the issue should be dealt with internationally and that it has no intention of striking Pyongyang, which it says belongs to an "axis of evil" along with Iraq and Iran.
But a chorus of critics, including some in U.S. President George W. Bush's own Republican Party, believe Bush may be neglecting the North Korea issue in order to focus on Iraq.
Critics seized on Tenet's testimony as proof that Pyongyang, not Baghdad, is the more immediate threat to U.S. national security. Ted Galen Carpenter of Washington's Cato Institute think tank had this to say: "When one combines this ballistic-missile capability with North Korea's active promotion of its nuclear-weapons program, I think it's clear that North Korea [is] a much more serious threat to international peace than Iraq is at the moment."
In a comment in "The New York Times" yesterday, Robert Einhorn, a former top U.S. nonproliferation official, accused the Bush administration of "adopting a curiously fatalistic approach" to North Korea. "With North Korea already believed to have one or two nuclear weapons, they point out, it is, for all practical purposes, already a nuclear power. What difference, they ask, does five more bombs make?" Einhorn asked, adding that he believes it makes a big difference and that the United States should seek to reach a negotiated settlement with North Korea.
But the Bush administration pointed to a ruling yesterday by the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency as supporting its position that North Korea's nuclear ambitions are an international problem and not a bilateral issue between Pyongyang and Washington.
Yesterday in Vienna, the IAEA governing board declared North Korea in breach of global atomic safeguards, a ruling that sends the issue to the UN Security Council, which could impose economic sanctions.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer had this to say at a briefing: "The one thing North Korea wants more than anything else is to make this a bilateral problem. And the vote in Vienna today showed that it is, indeed, the world's problem, caused by North Korea's actions."
The IAEA said that for now it is not recommending sanctions, which North Korea says would be tantamount to a declaration of war.
Fleischer added that the United States would "work closely with members of the Security Council and other friends and allies toward our shared objective: the elimination of North Korea's nuclear-weapons program in a verifiable and irreversible manner."
Fleischer also reiterated that the Bush administration, which insists it wants to deal with North Korea diplomatically, believes the nuclear standoff further demonstrates the need for Washington to develop a missile-defense system.