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Last Updated: Friday, 25 April, 2003, 16:19 GMT 17:19 UK
US weighs North Korea's threat

By Steve Schifferes
BBC News Online, Washington

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il (C) being briefed by his field commanders during a military exercise
Kim Jong-il's aim is to hold on to his regime at any cost
The failure of the first round of talks between the United States and North Korea over its nuclear weapons programmes will intensify the debate in Washington over Pyongyang's intentions.

When President George W Bush included North Korea as one of the countries in the "axis of evil" in his 2001 State of the Union address, along with Iran and Iraq, he was suggesting that the US viewed it as a regime that both supported terrorism and was incapable of change.

Since then, hardliners in the Defence Department and State Department moderates have been at loggerheads over how to deal with the world's most rigid Communist regime.

Even before the talks began, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sent a memo suggesting that regime change, not negotiations, was the best course forward.

In contrast, the State Department believes that North Korea can be persuaded to give up its nuclear ambitions in return for security guarantees and aid for its failing economy.

Nuclear blackmail

In that view, North Korea's nuclear programme is a "bargaining chip" that is not intended to be used, but to be traded away in return for vital aid, as happened in 1994.

But the acrimonious collapse of the first round of talks between the US and North Korea showed a high level of mistrust between the two sides.

According to the US, the North Koreans told the US that they already had nuclear weapons, and threatened to test them or sell them to others if a security deal was not agreed.

They also said they had already reprocessed the 8,000 plutonium fuel rods, which would allow the production of further weapons.

However, the US has expressed some scepticism about this claim, saying that "bluster is part of their vocabulary."

That may be because any confirmation would fan the hawks' worst fears: nuclear weapons used as blackmail to force security concessions from the US.

At the same time, the North Koreans' claim to have made a 'bold new initiative' is a matter of debate.

The North Koreans appear to have suggested a deal similar to the abandoned 1994 "framework" in which the US supplied energy and aid in return for a suspension of their nuclear programme.

But this time, the US is insisting on "complete and verifiable disarmament" as a pre-condition to any further talks.

The Koreans, however, who fear attack, want written security guarantees from the US before they will agree to any multinational talks at all.

Risks

The US says that it wants to resolve the issue diplomatically and has no plans to attack North Korea.

But if the crisis escalates, the Pentagon might be tempted to consider a pre-emptive strike which would destroy North Korea's nuclear reactor and stop it from producing more atomic bombs quickly.

However, as Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution points out, that would be a risky strategy, militarily as well as diplomatically.

It might not be possible to find and destroy all of North Korea's nuclear weapons, given the highly secretive nature of the society.

And earlier Pentagon studies suggested that if Pyongyang retaliated against South Korea, it could cause thousands, if not millions of casualties in the capital, Seoul, which is within range of 11,000 North Korean artillery pieces.

Mr O'Hanlon also says that a full-scale war with North Korea would be far more difficult that in Iraq, because of the mountainous terrain, the ideological indoctrination of the North Korean army, and the closeness of heavily populated areas of South Korea.

Regime change

Underlying the different positions is the question of whether Kim Jong-il is capable of real change.

Spent fuel rods at Yongbyon nuclear plant, North Korea
Spent fuel rods could be used to make nuclear bombs
Allan Song of the Smith Richardson Foundation argues that totalitarian regimes can only be overthrown from the outside, and that North Korea's leadership is weak and incompetent.

He cites the failed attempt at economic reform last summer and the botched reconciliation with Japan as further evidence of their failure.

But Don Oberdorfer, a former Washington Post correspondent who is now at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, says that North Korea has genuine, and understandable security concerns.

He points out that before North Korea began escalating its nuclear weapons threats, high-ranking officials told him that they would give up their enriched uranium programme in return for a recognition of sovereignty and a non-aggression treaty with the US.

Iraq war

Complicating all calculations is the effect of the Iraq war.

Some US officials were hopeful that the tough US line in Iraq would have a "demonstration effect" on other regimes, persuading them to moderate their positions without the need to resort to force.

James Kelly
Mr Kelly had very little authority
This was supposed to apply especially to the economically weakened North Korean regime.

But others argue that hardliners may have decided that nuclear weapons are their only insurance policy against imminent attack.

The talks with North Korea were always going to be very difficult.

That was why the US negotiator, James Kelly, was given very little authority to reach a deal, much less continue the talks without reference back to Washington.

Now the administration hawks seem to have another reason to pursue a policy of isolation rather than engagement.


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