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Plan Is to Pressure North Korea

U.S. will seek to stop Pyongyang's nuclear arms program through peaceful means and maintain its focus on threat posed by Iraq.

October 18, 2002|Paul Richter and Richard Simon | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — President Bush believes North Korea's disclosure that it has a secret nuclear weapons program is "troubling, sobering news," his spokesman said Thursday, but the administration and many members of Congress insisted that Iraq remains the primary threat facing the United States.

A day after U.S. officials reported that North Korea had acknowledged the bomb-building program, presidential spokesman Scott McClellan said Bush intends to "seek a peaceful solution" through diplomacy to stop the North's nuclear program.

Officials said the president plans to talk to heads of state and government about the issue at a gathering next week in Mexico City, and with Chinese President Jiang Zemin on Oct. 29 during a summit at the Bush ranch near Crawford, Texas.

Washington was jolted by news that North Korea had secretly forged ahead with an enriched-uranium program, despite an 8-year-old pledge to drop efforts to develop nuclear weapons in return for aid and a chance for improved relations.

The development threatens the nuclear balance in East Asia and adds a new challenge for an administration that is already struggling to root out Al Qaeda and Taliban foes in Afghanistan, prepare for a possible attack on Iraq and cope with the worldwide terrorist threat.

A senior Bush administration official said the U.S. goal is a diplomatic initiative that will bring pressure to bear on North Korea from its neighbors to end its program.

"We're not going to nuke them; we're going to use pressure," said the official, who asked not to be named.

Japanese and South Korean officials indicated Thursday that they too prefer to negotiate an end to the weapons program through diplomatic channels.

U.S. officials believe that North Korea's enriched uranium program is at least 2 years old but may have been going on since shortly after a 1994 deal in which the North pledged not to carry on nuclear arms development.

The senior administration official said U.S. authorities believe the North Koreans thought they could carry on with the secret program even as the United States gave them civilian nuclear power facilities, oil and other benefits agreed upon in the deal.

"They thought they could have their cake and eat it too," he said. "But they can't."

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said he believes the North Koreans not only have a nuclear weapons program but also have "one or two" nuclear bombs. While CIA reports and some military officials have made similar suggestions, Rumsfeld is the highest-ranking official ever to make such an assertion.

Even so, Rumsfeld said in response to a reporter's question that Iraq remains the most significant threat. "Iraq has unique characteristics that distinguish it and that suggest that it has nominated itself ... for special attention because of the threat of what they're doing."

Rumsfeld said he saw no point in conducting inspections in North Korea, since the country has acknowledged a program that would constitute a breach of four international treaties it has signed.

He also disagreed with some analysts who have taken it as a positive sign that the North has owned up to its violations.

"I don't think there's any way in the world anyone could say it's a good sign," Rumsfeld said.

U.S. lawmakers reacted with outrage to news of the North Korean weapons program.

Some called for a reassessment of American policy toward North Korea, and some urged a program of economic sanctions and political pressure to compel the Stalinist regime to halt the program. But many key members of Congress who spoke on the issue seemed to support the administration's plan to cautiously consider its options and avoid becoming distracted from the effort to deal with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said North Korea's "reckless brinksmanship must be met with firm and united resolve." But he stressed joint action on the threat, saying that South Korea, Japan, Russia and China "must play a vital role in the next few weeks in reducing the regional tensions created by these violations."

Sen. Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said that "obviously, North Korea is a matter of concern. But clearly, the one we have to deal with immediately is Iraq."

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called on North Korea "to immediately end its nuclear weapons program" and to come into compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which it signed. Biden added that he commended the administration for its plan to work with East Asian allies in seeking a solution.

Sen. Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) called on North Korea to halt its development of unconventional weapons and to open up for international inspections.

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