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Last Updated: Friday, 15 August, 2003, 00:07 GMT 01:07 UK
Spotlight on N Korea 'nuclear trading'

By Charles Scanlon
BBC correspondent in Seoul

For the last 10 months, with breathtaking audacity, North Korea has directly challenged the United States on a central pillar of its national security strategy - controlling the spread of nuclear weapons.

At the end of the month in Beijing, American officials will get the chance to confront a regime they have dubbed the world's most aggressive proliferator of weapons of mass destruction.

US officials say President Bush chose his words carefully when he included North Korea in his famous "Axis of evil" speech last year

North Korea's neighbours will also attend the talks - anxious to help bridge the gap between the superpower and a failing state that says it needs nuclear weapons to deter an attack.

China, Russia, Japan and South Korea are coming to the table alarmed by the prospect of war, or the catastrophic collapse of the North Korean regime.

The United States insisted on their participation at the talks, convinced that pressure from the region and China in particular is the best way to constrain North Korea's ambitions.

But it sees the threat from North Korea as more than a regional problem. Hardliners in the administration see a direct challenge to the global strategy of preventing the spread of deadly weapons to terrorists and rogue states.

US officials say President Bush chose his words carefully when he included North Korea in his famous "Axis of evil" speech last year.

They have spoken of a "hard connection" between the countries in the axis - Iran and Iraq - "along which flow dangerous weapons and dangerous technology".

With the removal of Saddam Hussein, the links between North Korea and Iran are receiving growing attention.

The Mangyongbong-92
North Korea's vessels are now under intense scrutiny

Pyongyang is accused of supplying Iran with Nodong medium range ballistic missiles and of giving technology and assistance for the development of its own Shahab-3 missiles.

Recently there have been unconfirmed allegations that North Korea is helping Iran with its nuclear programme, and the development of longer range missiles.

North Korea claims in recent months to have reprocessed enough plutonium for about six nuclear warheads.

That has raised fears in Washington that an unchecked North Korea could become a nuclear production line for some of the world's most dangerous regimes and terrorists.

That may have looked like a far fetched scenario, until North Korean diplomats directly warned American officials in April that they could sell nuclear warheads abroad.

The latest confrontation between the United States and North Korea erupted last October when American officials said the North admitted it had been running a secret nuclear weapons programme, based on highly enriched uranium, in violation of previous agreements.

But long before that, the Bush administration had identified North Korea as a rogue state actively developing and selling weapons of mass destruction.

Extensive missile sales in the Middle East are an important hard currency earner for the bankrupt regime.

There are clear divisions in the Bush administration over how to proceed

The US meanwhile accuses North Korea of amassing a large stockpile of chemical weapons and of having a "dedicated national-level effort" to achieve biological weapons capability.

While American diplomats prepare for talks with North Korean officials, the administration is pushing ahead with plans to stop and search North Korean ships believed to be carrying illicit cargoes.

The Under-Secretary of State, John Bolton, has identified North Korea and Iran as two prime targets of the Proliferation Security Initiative - a global effort to stop the trade of weapons of mass destruction.

Mr Bolton insisted on a recent visit to Seoul that the approach was consistent with a negotiated settlement.

But the message to North Korea is clear enough. It can expect ever tighter restrictions on its lucrative weapons trade if it resists a diplomatic settlement.

There are clear divisions in the Bush administration over how to proceed.

Those advocating negotiations with the North now have their chance to test the regime's true intentions and to explore the possibilities of a diplomatic settlement.

But if they falter in the stated goal to scrap North Korea's nuclear weapons programmes "verifiably and irreversibly", the initiative is likely to pass back to the hawks.

They're likely to insist on a range of other concessions from North Korea, including an end to missile sales and the development of chemical and biological weapons.

They will also want a reduction in the conventional threat from North Korea's million-man army and improvements in human rights in one of the world's most repressive states.

To the North Koreans that would look more like a demand for regime change than a serious attempt at negotiations.

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