San Jose Mercury News, Saturday, January 18, 2003, Page 1 


U.S. may Risk Worse Threat by Neglecting North Korea:                                                   Washington Must Deal with it Now, Experts Say  


SAN JOSE  Distracted by preparations for possible war in Iraq, the Bush administration is downplaying the urgency of North Korea's threat to resume its nuclear weapons program. But experts on the country say the crisis is far more grave than it appears from U.S. pronouncements. They warn that it could be too late to deal effectively with the emergence of another nuclear power in Asia after the business is finished in the Persian Gulf

If North Korea doesn't already have one or two nuclear bombs in its arsenal, it has made it clear to the world it intends to develop such weapons unless it gets what it wants. This is not just a bluff. Experts have no doubt that Pyongyang has the technical capability and the pluck -- to turn spent nuclear reactor fuel rods into deadly warheads. 

''My sense is that the North Koreans are going slightly berserk, mobilizing the entire society to a fevered pitch. They are cranking up the madness machine as fast as they have in 30 years,'' said Peter Hayes, director of the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability, a public-policy think tank in Berkeley that focuses on nuclear weapons and energy in North Korea. 

''By wasting their time, the Bush administration has created a far more difficult problem than they had in October,'' said Hayes, referring to a North Korean acknowledgment when confronted by a State Department envoy that it had a clandestine uranium-enrichment program. ''The Bush administration has no road map; it's crafting policy on the fly.'' 

But what does North Korea really want? To take advantage of the U.S. focuson Iraq and quickly develop nuclear capability, or to use the threat of going nuclear as a bargaining chip to gain assurances of military and economic security from the United States? North

Korea watchers in and outside the government are divided on the answer. 

The motivation 

Most believe North Korea's actions are motivated by the desire to bargain, not by a drive to deploy nuclear weapons. It is a view shared by South Korea's incoming President Roh Moo Hyun, who told the New York Times this week that he had faith that the conciliatory approach to negotiating with Pyongyang would pay off in the end. ''North Korea wants to escape from its status as a rogue state,'' Roh said. ''I believe once those things are guaranteed, North Korea will abandon its nuclear ambitions.'' 

Gi-Wook Shin, a sociologist specializing in Korean nationalism at Stanford University's Asia/Pacific Research Center, said North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il and his hawkish generals are exploiting the nuclear option out of an instinct for survival. 

''It's a very calculated strategy,'' Shin said. ''It may be a miscalculation, but there's good reason for North Korea to fear aggression in the current environment. The nuclear weapons program is their only bargaining chip.'' 

Others sharply disagree with that view. ''No carrot or confection will stop the North Korean nuclear program,'' wrote columnist Charles Krauthammer, expressing a view widely held among conservative analysts. ''Pyongyang says it wants the bomb. It does. It is not looking for reassurance. Of course North Korea will take blackmail money, too. Why not? But it will not give up its nuclear program in exchange.'' 

North Korea and the United States have been moving toward a confrontation since the Bush administration came into office. Even before his inauguration, Bush rejected the Clinton administration's road map for constraining nuclear proliferation in Korea as flawed, offering concessions without shutting down the North's nuclear program. The controversial 1994 Agreed Framework placed International Atomic Energy Agency monitors on the grounds of a closed nuclear facility capable of producing weapons-grade uranium and plutonium. But it did not force a dismantling of those facilities, which Bush demands. 

North Korean officials were even more alarmed when Bush, after the Sept. 11 attacks, branded the country a member of the terrorist ''axis of evil.'' They expressed the fear that North Korea would be next, after Iraq, on the list of countries Washington decided were in need of a ''regime change.'' 

The current crisis emerged after the October disclosure that the North Koreans have been cheating on the 1994 accord. In a series of tit-for-tat actions, the United States cut off fuel-oil shipments, and North Korea told IAEA monitors to go home. Then it raised the ante by announcing it was withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the international accord to limit the spread of nuclear weapons. 

The White House has taken a leisurely approach to the problem, dismissing the urgent concerns of South Korea, Japan and other regional U.S. allies who want to open talks with North Korea. It has stalled, refusing to negotiate an end of the conflict under nuclear

''blackmail.'' At the same time, Bush has made provocative remarks apparently intended to rattle nerves in Pyongyang, saying he ''loathes'' communist leader Kim, the son of the nation's late patriarch Kim Il Sung, and indicating he wants to topple the dynastic

Stalinist government. 

The rhetoric has softened in recent days with suggestions that food and energy assistance could be available on the condition that North Korea first agrees to dismantle its nuclear facilities. But in the diplomatic stalemate, North Korea is demanding assurances that the United States will guarantee that it will not use pre-emptive military force, as it is considering in Iraq. Pyongyang rejected Bush's latest gesture in shrill tones as ''deceptive drama.'' 

''The U.S. loudmouthed supply of energy and food aid are like a pie in the sky,'' the Foreign Ministry said in a statement carried by the Korean Central News Agency, the official media outlet notorious for its hysterical prose.

Third-party hope 

Some observers are hoping China, which maintains friendly relations with North Korea, may be able to break the deadlock by hosting negotiations. Friday, a senior Russian envoy arrived in Beijing with a proposed plan to revive the 1994 Agreed Framework, the British Broadcasting Corp. reported. 

But talks with the United States are not likely to succeed unless North Korea is truly willing to give up its nuclear option in exchange for an American security guarantee and for economic aid. 

''What North Korea wants is a complete turnaround in their relationship with the United States. They want economic and military security,'' argued Selig S. Harrison, senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Institute in Washington and the author of the book ''Korea Endgame.'' 

Harrison said that from Pyongyang's perspective, North Koreans were the ones cheated in the 1994 Agreed Framework, because the Americans never followed up on the promise to sign a non-aggression pact and to give North Korea diplomatic recognition. 

But North Korea's bellicose behavior and its paranoia make it extremely difficult to see through to that goal. 

''They don't trust any outside power,'' said Kongdan ''Katy'' Oh, a North Korea analyst and co-author of ''North Korea Through the Looking Glass.'' 

''That's part of the national psyche. It's a totalitarian society with a strong sense of nationalism and a unique Confucian heritage that binds people in conformity and respect for authority,'' said Oh. ''Of course, it's crazy and bizarre in terms of today's international society, but its not necessarily irrational. To them, this is normal.''