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A New Focus on N. Korea

October 18, 2002

North Korea's surprising admission that it has secretly pursued development of nuclear weapons raises the threat level in Northeast Asia. But the acknowledgment of what was long suspected also could set the stage for more-honest negotiations with the United States and its allies.

The unidentified Bush administration official who Wednesday night disclosed the North Korean confession said the U.S. wanted "a peaceful resolution" of its differences with Pyongyang that should include removal of any nuclear weapons. That's good reason for Washington to work with the governments of South Korea (where the U.S. stations 37,000 troops), Japan and China to develop a strategy to gain inspection of North Korean nuclear facilities while offering Pyongyang the possible reward of eventual diplomatic recognition.

In 1994, North Korea promised to freeze development of atomic weapons -- for which it was using plutonium from its nuclear power plant at Yongbyon -- in exchange for fuel oil and construction of two civilian nuclear power plants that would use fuel less likely to be employed in making nuclear bombs.

Two weeks ago, Pyongyang admitted to Assistant U.S. Secretary of State James A. Kelly that it was pursuing a program to build nuclear weapons using enriched uranium.

That was its second recent admission. Earlier it disclosed that for years it had kidnapped citizens of Japan and forced them to instruct North Korean agents on the Japanese language and that nation's customs.

The Bush administration official speaking Wednesday said the nuclear weapons message was "assertive, aggressive" rather than apologetic. Even so, both disclosures can be read as North Korea's attempts to open its books, admit past actions and resume negotiations with its former enemies. However, because North Korea's army and its weapons dwarf Iraq's, its troops are much closer to U.S. forces than Iraq's and it may already have nuclear weapons on hand, North Korea should move to the top of the Bush administration's diplomatic problems.

The administration should have disclosed the North Korean admission before last week's congressional votes authorizing the use of force against Iraq; doing so would have made for a more informed debate.

North Korea always has deserved skepticism about its words, actions and motives. President Bush has taken a tougher line than President Clinton, even lumping North Korea into an "axis of evil" with Iraq and Iran. Pyongyang may in part be expressing anger at Bush. But it should recognize that Russia isn't the ally it once was and China, which fought on its side in the Korean War while the United States joined forces with South Korea, also has distanced itself.

North Korean citizens are starving or freezing to death; those who can reach foreign countries refuse to go home. If North Korea wants respect or aid, it has to abandon nuclear weapons programs and allow inspectors to verify that.

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