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N. Korea Wants Its Way Before a U.S. War With Iraq

March 05, 2003|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL — If anybody thought that North Korea was going to lie low to allow the United States to focus on Iraq, that misimpression was corrected by the interception over the weekend of a U.S. surveillance plane.

The incident is more proof, if any was needed, that the North Koreans are determined to force themselves and their problems on the agenda now. Veteran North Korea watchers say they think that the faltering regime is trying to extract economic aid, energy assistance and above all guarantees for its own survival -- and that it believes its bargaining position will be stronger before a campaign against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

"North Korea wants to conclude something while the U.S. position is weak," said Kim Tae Woo, a military expert with the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul.

The shadowing of the U.S. RC-135S reconnaissance plane by North Korean fighter jets is just one more incident that might not amount to much on its own but sends a clear message when combined with other recent provocations.

North Korea has test-fired a short-range missile, sent a MIG fighter jet into South Korean airspace and fired up its 5-megawatt nuclear reactor, just to mention a few of the more noteworthy moves that have made headlines in recent days.

There is every indication that the provocations will continue until North Korea gets the response it wants.

"The North Koreans continue to come up with creative alternatives that are all designed to get the United States' attention," said Scott Snyder, Seoul representative of the Asia Foundation. "They feel they have a deadline. They can't afford to wait until after Iraq."

The North Korean shadowing of the reconnaissance plane was especially frightening not because of what happened but because of what could have happened. The North Korean fighter jets were said to have come within 50 feet of the U.S. craft, which by the standards of aviation meant within a hairsbreadth of a midair collision.

It is easy to imagine that had there been U.S. deaths, pressure would be high on the Bush administration to respond militarily.

Snyder said he believes the incident will increase calls from nervous allies in Asia for the United States to open bilateral talks with North Korea. During Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's visit to the region last month, the desire for talks was a message delivered repeatedly by Chinese and South Korean officials. The Bush administration has steadfastly eschewed direct talks, believing that North Korea poses an international threat and should be dealt with in a multilateral setting.

"The United States might have a great desire to put this aside until it can focus, but I don't think that view is shared by its allies in Asia. The more real the risks are growing, the less patience there will be," Snyder said.

Official reaction in Asia to the incident was conspicuously lacking in indignation about the conduct of the North Koreans in intercepting the reconnaissance plane.

The Chinese urged that "all sides keep calm and exercise restraint in order to truly safeguard peace and stability on the Korean peninsula," according to a statement from Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan.

The South Korean government made no statement criticizing the North Koreans, and some analysts dismissed the U.S. complaints as unwarranted.

"What North Korea did was nothing extraordinary," said Lee Jong Seok, a North Korea specialist with the Sejong Institute who has served as an advisor to South Korea's newly inaugurated president, Roh Moo Hyun. "A strange aircraft approaches, and they sent their planes to check it out. The United States shouldn't make a big deal about it."

An unnamed South Korean official was quoted in today's JoongAng Ilbo newspaper deploring the lack of dialogue between the United States and North Korea.

Tensions also are high because of the start this week of the annual war games that are staged by the 38,000 U.S. troops based here and the South Korean military. The exercise, called Operation Foal Eagle, began Tuesday and runs through April 2.

"This Foal Eagle exercise is escalating the danger of armed clashes on the Korean peninsula," Minju Joson, a North Korean newspaper, said in a report Tuesday that was monitored in Seoul. "If the eagle swoops down on us, a nuclear war will break out, and it is clear that the whole Korean nation will not escape nuclear holocaust," said the report monitored by South Korea's Yonhap news agency.

The U.S. military denied that there is anything out of the ordinary about the exercises. "The North Koreans say this is provocative, but it has been on the calendar for years," said Maj. Brian Mako, a U.S. Army spokesman.

The next big step that North Korea could take would be to start up a mothballed reprocessing plant that converts spent fuel rods from its nuclear reactor into weapons-grade plutonium. Satellite photographs of the plant at North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear complex suggest that such a move is imminent.

Many diplomats believe that reprocessing the fuel rods would be tantamount to crossing the "red line" because North Korea would be able to produce enough plutonium to build five or six nuclear bombs, in addition to the one or two it is suspected of already having. Although other measures could be dismissed as brinkmanship, the North Koreans appear to be intent on producing plutonium, perhaps using the distraction of a war in Iraq.

Analysts believe that North Korea is hedging its bets and figures that if it cannot strike an attractive deal with the United States, the plutonium could be sold for hard currency.

"North Koreans usually do things with multiple objectives. That's their style," said a U.S. intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

*

Chi Jung Nam in The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.

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