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Fear Seen as Driving N. Korea Disclosure

October 18, 2002|Sonni Efron | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — What was Kim Jong Il thinking?

As North Korea-watchers in Washington and Seoul on Thursday digested the bombshell admission that Pyongyang has a secret nuclear weapons program, speculation centered on what motivated the secretive, Stalinist North Korean leader to fess up. At the same time, they wondered whether the Bush administration can justify negotiating with North Korea while threatening to invade a similar nuclear aspirant, Iraq.

Analysts agreed that only Kim himself could have made the snap decision to admit to visiting U.S. diplomats two weeks ago that the evidence they presented showing North Korea had been working for more than two years on a uranium-based nuclear weapons program was accurate.

Some speculated that the regime's unapologetic confirmation that North Korea has "a nuclear weapons program and more" was motivated by the fear that the Bush administration, once it finishes a possible invasion of Iraq, intends to turn its wrath on another nation that President Bush has identified as a member of an "axis of evil": North Korea.

"Don't disregard North Korea's paranoia and its fear of a U.S. attack," cautioned L. Gordon Flake, a North Korea expert and head of the Mansfield Center for Pacific Affairs in Washington. "The more the U.S. displays its capacity to and willingness to extend its reach -- and what some people see as violate the sovereignty of other countries -- the more frightened North Korea becomes."

Larry Niksch, an Asia specialist with the Congressional Research Service, said: "The message is ... we have powerful weapons, more powerful than Iraq, and if you're thinking about coming after us for your next target after Iraq, you better think twice, because we can hit back harder than the Iraqis can."

The question for U.S. policymakers is how to appear to have a consistent policy toward both "proliferators," while taking into account the fact that the two nations pose dramatically different security challenges.

The fundamental difference is that North Korea once threatened to turn Seoul into "a sea of fire" if attacked, and the U.S. has long judged that Pyongyang is capable of doing so.

North Korea has a standing army of 1.2 million, about 70% of which is forward-deployed within 60 miles of the demilitarized zone, and about 10,000 artillery pieces dug into hardened positions within easy range of the South Korean capital.

Although North Korea would certainly lose a war with the U.S.-backed South Korea, U.S. military planners have long concluded that the South could suffer millions of casualties before the Northern threat would be neutralized.

"Seoul is held hostage," Flake said.

North Korea has frequently issued military threats to bolster its diplomacy. Playing the nuclear card is the ultimate message to Washington that however impoverished North Korea may be, its military might is not to be underestimated.

"Part of the phenomenon was, 'I am North Korea. Hear me roar! I can make nuclear weapons,' " a senior State Department official said.

Others interpreted the confession as a characteristically clumsy North Korean way of coming clean with the United States in hopes of forging a new and better relationship. They note that North Korea's recent charm offensive toward Japan featured Kim's awkward confession that his military abducted Japanese civilians in the 1970s and '80s.

Many analysts saw the North Korean admission as a prelude to proposing a bargain. During the Clinton administration, Pyongyang repeatedly floated the idea that Washington might compensate North Korea for giving up weapons sales -- an idea the Bush administration finds ideologically intolerable.

"At a minimum, he's trying to put North Korea back on the U.S. radar screen," said Robert Einhorn, who spent years negotiating with North Korean diplomats as the Clinton administration's point man on missile control. "The Bush administration has not placed North Korea at the center of its universe, and I think North Korea would like to get [its] attention.

"It probably signals that the North Koreans are willing to bargain over this program," Einhorn added. "Whether the Bush administration is prepared to bargain is another story."

And some observers said that North Korea's decision to pursue a weapons program as an insurance policy against superpower America and its South Korean ally, while simultaneously seeking better relations with Japan and South Korea, is not as irrational as it might seem.

"If they're like us, they have a Foreign Ministry that wants to have better relations and they have a Defense Ministry that wants to have better weapons," said Gary Milhollin of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control in Washington. "They're about as rational as we are."

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