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Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 June, 2003, 04:46 GMT 05:46 UK
US splits deepen over North Korea

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
As the US increases pressure on North Korea, US policy is still divided over whether to use force or diplomacy to resolve the crisis.

For hardliners in the Bush administration, North Korea is the most urgent issue on the international agenda.

Richard Perle, a key advisor to Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld during the Iraq war, told BBC News Online that there may only be "months, not years" before North Korea accumulates enough plutonium to make half a dozen nuclear weapons.

Mr Perle said that such a development would be unacceptable to the United States, given the well-grounded fear that the North Korean regime could transfer such weapons to other countries and terrorist groups.

And he said that the United States would have to consider a surgical air strike to eliminate the nuclear plant at Yongbyon, which he said was a relatively easy target.

Spent fuel rods at Yongbyon nuclear plant, North Korea
Spent fuel rods could be used to make nuclear bombs
Recently, former US Defence Secretary William Perry revealed that the US had plans to bomb North Korea in 1994 before the "framework agreement" was signed with the US.

But Mr Perle said that it might be possible to contain North Korea by means of a blockade so that it would be unable to export nuclear material.

Such an effort began to take shape last week, when 11 countries, including the US and Australia, proposed a scheme which would allow ships and aircraft suspected of involvement in illegal activates to be stopped and searched on the high seas.

Stark warning

This prompted a warning from North Korea that it viewed the move as a "threat to its sovereignty."

Maurice Strong, the Canadian diplomat who is Kofi Annan's special UN representative to Korea, says that despite Korea's belligerent language it would be a mistake to reject the diplomatic approach.

He said, in a speech at the Carnegie Institute for International Peace in Washington, that the crisis offered the best hope to solve the whole Korean issue by ultimately agreeing a comprehensive peace treaty, which would eliminate the 50-year armed confrontation between North and South.

In his view, the North's attitude was motivated by the fear of imminent economic collapse, and he said that the UN was actively organising the framework for a package of long-term economic assistance and reform.

Mr Strong also said that any attempt at regime change in North Korea would be far more difficult that in Iraq, as there were no obvious candidates to replace the current leadership, and the scale of the humanitarian crisis would be far greater.

'Coercive diplomacy'

Meanwhile another distinguished former diplomat has criticised the Bush administration's approach to North Korea.

Ambassador Robert Gallucci, who negotiated the framework agreement in 1994 and is now at Georgetown University, said that the kind of graduated coercion that was being applied to North Korea would not be effective if the aim was regime change.

He said that there was no incentive for compliance, as there had been in 1994, when the regime reached a deal with the Clinton administration that at the very least delayed its nuclear programme for 15 years.

And he said that he doubted that the prosecution of the Iraq war had yielded the effect that the Bush administration had been hoping for - making more credible the threat of force.

Instead, he said it was just as likely that the North Koreans has concluded that they needed nuclear weapons as the only way to deter the US from a pre-emptive attack.

And Ambassador Gallucci was sceptical of the distinction being made between multilateral talks (backed by the US) and bilateral talks (urged by North Korea), saying that both types of talks will need to take place to resolve the crisis.

Regime change

Underlying the different positions is the question of whether Kim Jong-il is capable of real change and is motivated by rational concerns.

Diplomats like Mr Strong - who said his efforts were being strongly backed by US Secretary of State Colin Powell - believe that the North Koreans are acting in a rational manner, even it is one that is hard to understand.

He said that they were inexperienced in international diplomacy, and had made mistakes in misreading the effects of their actions on others - for example, in telling the Japanese about the abductions that took place in the l970s.

But he says their desire for change is genuine, and motivated by their need to survive.

Mr Perle, in contrast, believes that North Korea may be deliberately deceiving the West about the scale of its nuclear programme - although he suggested to the BBC that it might have exaggerated how far advanced they are in order to increase their leverage in negotiations.

But Mr Perle questioned whether there was any point in negotiating with a country that had in the past ignored its agreements and undertakings.

If he is right about the scale of North Korea's nuclear programme, President Bush will soon have to decide which course of action to back.

With thousands of weapons poised on the border between North and South, in range of Seoul, the stakes could not be higher.

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