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Last Updated: Saturday, 30 August, 2003, 21:25 GMT 22:25 UK
US considers options on N Korea

By David Bamford
BBC correspondent in Washington

The United States went to the Beijing six-nation talks with North Korea this week expecting little progress in convincing Pyongyang to dismantle its nuclear programme.

The event lived up to those expectations, leaving the Bush administration to contemplate how long it should maintain the current process of multilateral talks and whether to turn up the pressure - a strategy long advocated by the more hawkish wing of the US Government.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il
President Bush has made it clear he does not trust the Korean leader
US delegates returning from Beijing seemed genuinely impressed by the manner in which China and Russia voiced their concerns to the North Koreans alongside the US and its regional allies, South Korea and Japan.

Dovish voices in Washington are urging the Secretary of State, Colin Powell, to keep alive the multilateral process begun in Beijing, despite the limited progress so far and the confused signals from North Korea. They also say the US should look beyond the immediate nuclear crisis to understand North Korea's needs.

"We're trying to essentially force the North Koreans to change their regime without regime change. This is not an easy deal for the North Koreans to accept," said Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution.

"If we just negotiate on the nuclear weapons issue, they're not going to see any way to fix their economy and they're going to use a dangerous weapons programme to try to extort resources form the international community."

Hawkish options

But President Bush has remained adamant that the US is seen to do nothing that appears to reward what he calls North Korea's nuclear blackmail.

North Korea's refusal to "completely, verifiably and irreversibly" dismantle its nuclear programme has in the meantime reinvigorated neo-conservative arguments in Washington that no deal with North Korea - either bilateral or multilateral - would ever be honoured by its leader, Kim Jong-il, unless backed by a convincing threat of either total economic blockade or military force.

For the time being, as long as Iraq is in turmoil, even US hawks concede that military options are ill-advised, at least for now.

Pentagon analysts acknowledge that a US strike on the Yongbyon nuclear facility would probably be insufficient to deal with the crisis.

The US would also have to assume and prepare for a peninsular war started by a North Korean attack on South Korea.

An economic blockade was a more realistic option, but its success would depend on outside help.

"The only chance for a peaceful resolution of this crisis before North Korea moves clearly into the ranks of nuclear powers is for China to move decisively to use its substantial economic leverage derived from North Korea's dependence on it for fuel and food," former CIA director James Woolsey told the Wall Street Journal.

"Only by impressing on the Chinese that their client regime is going to be changed - one way or the other - is there any chance that the government in Beijing will act," said Frank Gaffney, an analyst with the Center for Security Policy.

A group of Republican senators has called this week for a United Nations-backed blockade of both North Korea and Iran until they abided by international nuclear norms.

"The Bush administration has a distinct window of opportunity to act before the situation becomes a reality, and before Iran and North Korea use their weapons as leverage against the United States and its allies," the senators said.

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