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North Korea: Diplomacy Intensifies In Wake Of Plutonium Claim

Diplomatic efforts aimed at halting North Korea's nuclear program are intensifying this week after Pyongyang recently claimed to have produced enough plutonium to start making nuclear bombs. China is pushing a compromise format for talks that it hopes will bring Washington and Pyongyang back to the table after an initial round of talks in Beijing ended in failure.

Prague, 16 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell today discussed the continuing standoff over North Korea's nuclear ambitions in a telephone call with his Chinese counterpart, Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing.

The conversation was the latest attempt by Beijing and Washington to find a way out of the nuclear impasse on the Korean peninsula. So far, little has been achieved and Pyongyang -- if it is to be believed -- continues its race to manufacture nuclear weapons.

Yesterday, the White House said Pyongyang had informed the United States that it had now finished reprocessing all of the 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods in its possession into bomb-grade plutonium.

Scientists say that if this is true, Pyongyang could soon have enough nuclear material to make six nuclear bombs.

Aidan Foster-Carter, a leading North Korea analyst based at Britain's Leeds University, tells RFE/RL that although Pyongyang could be exaggerating, it does have the fuel rods and the technical capability to reprocess them, so it could also be telling the truth. Right now, he says, there is simply no way of checking.

"It does seem fairly quick, if we assume that this can only have begun no earlier than January, after they kicked out the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, who for several years had been watching to make sure that nothing happened at the Yongbyong [nuclear plant] site," Foster-Carter says. "The trouble with North Korea is that a) it's very hard to confirm the intelligence, all the more so without the IAEA inspectors, and b) one never knows if they're bluffing."

North Korea, meanwhile, continues to make the same demands it has made since the crisis erupted nine months ago, when it announced the restarting of its mothballed nuclear program. It wants bilateral talks with the United States, although it has also hinted that it could accept multilateral negotiations, under the precondition that Washington gives it a guarantee of nonaggression. Washington rejects any such conditions.

The stalemate has prompted China, which initially held back from any direct involvement, to become actively engaged in trying to renew dialogue. Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Dai Bingguo returned to Beijing just yesterday after holding three days of talks in Pyongyang.

Diplomats say Beijing is proposing holding another round of three-way talks between the United States, North Korea, and China, with bilateral meetings on the sidelines -- to try and accommodate both Pyongyang and Washington. A first round of three-way talks in April in Beijing ended unsuccessfully.

Observers note that China, as North Korea's biggest trading partner and closest ally, carries significant leverage and its active involvement in trying to end the crisis can only be welcomed. But the real key continues to be the United States and so far, there is little sign that the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has succeeded in overcoming its internal divisions on how to deal with North Korea, or the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), as its leaders in Pyongyang officially call it.

Sebastian Harnisch, a Korea expert at the University of Trier in Germany, says, "I think the main problem right now in terms of getting to a negotiated settlement or at least to start a negotiation process is the bilateral relationship between the DPRK and the U.S. government. In terms of the U.S. government, at least, there are still different positions and I am not so sure whether China is able to tip the balance within the U.S. government so it can come forward with a pragmatic approach towards the DPRK."

Foster-Carter is even more blunt in his characterization. He says the Bush administration had no Korea policy when it came into office two and a half years ago and that it continues to have no policy even now -- a situation that has allowed the crisis to escalate at alarming speed.

Some hawks in Washington appear to favor a strategy of blockades and sanctions -- moves that Pyongyang has warned will lead to war -- while others say they are prepared for talks, without offering any possibility of concessions.

"Yet again we've had all the old mantras reiterated: 'We don't give in to blackmail.' Well, fair enough, but what are you going to do? If you're not going to make war or perhaps blockade or interdict -- which does seem to be the way U.S. policy is going, though I doubt this would work -- then you talk," Foster-Carter says. "And if you talk, you deal. And deals involve concessions on both sides. Kim Jong-il is not about to unilaterally disarm, particularly after Iraq. So I could wish for clearer thinking in both capitals, shall we say."

Foster-Carter adds that although the North Korean leader's moves are often hard to interpret, there could be a simple logic in his apparent race to acquire nuclear weapons. Unless the U.S. can speak with a single and credible voice on North Korea, offering a carrot as well as a stick to Pyongyang, he says there appears little chance that the crisis will ease.

"I would not be surprised if Kim Jong-il, watching what happened to Iraq, concludes: 'OK, first of all they list you on an 'axis of evil,' then they make you submit to all these inspections and then they go and invade you anyway. That may well be his view," says Foster-Carter. "So, even if you're putting pressure on, which seems to be the way U.S. policy is going -- all sorts of talk about interdicting shipments here, there, and everywhere -- the question is: To what goal? Do you plan regime change? And we had a clear statement from Richard Armitage, who is the deputy undersecretary at the State Department that no, they [the U.S.] are not going for regime change. But almost everything else you read suggests that there plenty of others, including perhaps Bush himself, who is on record as viscerally loathing Kim Jong-il, who would be happy to see regime change. So matters like that, they really need to sort out."

Ultimately, says analyst Sebastian Harnisch, a nuclear North Korea could pose a whole host of problems for the region and the United States sooner rather than later.

"It puts tremendous pressure on other states surrounding the peninsula or South Korea to go nuclear," Harnisch says. "It could set an example where a new nuclear weapons capability leads other players to pursue the nuclear road -- and that's very serious. More serious for the United States, in terms of other regional contingencies, would of course be if the North Koreans export these capabilities to other places."

All that could make Iraq and Afghanistan seem like a cakewalk by comparison.