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News of N. Korean Arms Program Shocks Region

October 18, 2002|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL -- South Koreans and Japanese expressed shock Thursday over reports from Washington that North Korea has a secret nuclear weapons program, amid fears that tension in North Asia could rise precipitously.

And in a region where nuance and indirect communication are highly valued, some questioned the blunt way Washington disclosed the information, whether North Korea's statement might have been taken out of context and why U.S. officials waited two weeks after Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly's meetings in Pyongyang, the North's capital, to drop such a bombshell.

"The U.S. should not be in such a hurry to take us on a collision course," said Moon Chung In, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Yonsei University. "If the U.S. takes a hard-line stance against North Korea, it's not good for Japan, South Korea, the U.S. or the entire region."

Yim Sung Joon, top national security advisor to South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, told reporters Thursday that Kim plans to raise the issue with President Bush and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi at a three-way summit next week in Mexico.

South Korea's Unification Ministry said in a statement that it would raise the nuclear issue in ministerial talks between the two Koreas set to begin Saturday in Pyongyang.

"The president views this as a grave matter, and it is his position that it is unacceptable under any circumstances for North Korea to develop nuclear weapons," Yim told reporters.

Japan has also said it plans to raise the issue at a meeting with North Korean officials in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, scheduled for late this month.

Experts say Washington has apparently decided to work through Japanese and South Korean diplomatic channels on this issue in part because it is stretched so thin with terrorism-related commitments around the globe.

In recent weeks, South Korea and Japan have seen an improvement in their respective relations with North Korea, and the prospect of sliding backward, perhaps into war, is anything but welcome.

Although many in the region suspected that North Korea had been up to no good, the disclosure that it had violated its 1994 pledge to freeze its nuclear program left many scratching their heads Thursday.

"I was absolutely dumbfounded to hear the news," said Im Hee Keun, 44, an editor at a South Korean publishing company. "I vaguely imagined they had the raw materials, but to hear them actually admit it was something else again."

Ordinary citizens, along with professionals in East Asian think tanks, brokerage houses and the highest levels of government, this week sought to fathom why North Korea would admit to having a nuclear program, especially given its long history of intricate brinkmanship and feints.

Some suspect that North Korea hoped to entice Kelly into striking some sort of bargain and badly miscalculated.

"I think they sort of admitted, 'OK, we continued this secret program, but we're prepared to make a deal,' " said Paik Jin Hyun, international law and relations professor at Seoul National University. "It's amazing to see how little they understand the Bush administration. That was probably the last thing they should have done."

Others read it as another deliberate ratcheting up of the stakes.

"North Korea wants to hold a more powerful diplomatic card," said Toshiyuki Hijikata, a Korean peninsula security expert at Japan's Teikyo University. "Up until now, they had a nuclear suspicion card. Now they have a nuclear development card. They hope to gain more leverage from negotiations."

Longtime North Korea watchers said there's probably no single motivation behind Pyongyang's recent disclosures, confessions and apologies, but one thing is clear: The isolated state faces growing financial problems as its economy implodes and hard currency falls into increasingly short supply.

In the past, North Korea has been able to secure grain, fuel oil, cash payments and even herds of cows in return for reduced hostilities and more "normal" behavior. Tokyo and Washington recently have also dangled aid programs and access to loan packages in return for improved diplomatic relations and an end to the development and export of its most dangerous weaponry.

North Korea's latest disclosure threatens to undermine a recent upturn in the regional outlook.

In a historic breakthrough, Koizumi visited Pyongyang on Sept. 17, prompting a North Korean admission that its agents abducted 13 Japanese during the 1970s and 1980s, eight of whom allegedly have since died. The apology has sparked talk of normalization between the two nations, which have had no formal diplomatic relations since World War II. Japan occupied the Korean peninsula for 35 years after 1910.

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