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Nuclear Waiting Game Called Risky

North Korea may be working in secret as the U.S. holds out for diplomacy, critics warn.

October 03, 2003|Sonni Efron | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — When North Korea announced Thursday that it had finished reprocessing its 8,000 spent plutonium fuel rods -- enough to make about six atomic bombs -- official Washington all but yawned.

"This is the third time they have told us they have just finished reprocessing the rods," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said dryly. "We have no evidence to confirm that."

A North Korean official's statement Wednesday that his government would not attend a second round of talks with five nations trying to persuade it to dismantle its nuclear weapons programs was likewise dismissed by a senior State Department official as no more credible than any of Pyongyang's claims.

The reaction highlighted the strategy the Bush administration has adopted toward North Korea, one of patience and unflappability shaped partly by design and partly by necessity.

In private, administration sources do not dispute that President Bush -- facing a tough reelection campaign and a military stretched paper-thin by deployments in Iraq and elsewhere -- can't afford another war this term. Unless North Korea matches its incendiary rhetoric with heinous deeds, analysts say, the president is unlikely to abandon his stated goal of achieving a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

The other nations involved in the talks -- China, Russia, South Korea and Japan -- are even more eager to avoid a showdown that could trigger hostilities, floods of North Korean refugees, or even a decision by Japan or South Korea to get their own nuclear arms.

Thus all five nations have an interest in making sure the negotiations do not collapse. A senior administration official said that Washington was willing to continue as long as negotiations were constructive but that it wouldn't wait indefinitely.

Conservative critics say that what the administration calls patience amounts to stalling, and carries great risk.

North Korea knows that the U.S. is fully occupied in Iraq, and while the communist nation considers whether to attend talks, it may be expanding and improving its nuclear arsenal and delivery systems, they warn.

"The most popular diplomatic plan still seems to be to kick the can down the road," complained hawkish nonproliferation expert Henry Sokolski in an article in this week's Weekly Standard, a politically conservative journal. Sokolski argues that the administration should work to have North Korea's breach and Iran's alleged breach of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty taken up by the U.N. Security Council as soon as possible, which could result in sanctions.

"Pushing these steps is sure to upset the diplomatic set, who have done their best to avoid such unpleasantness," Sokolski said. He added, however, that nonproliferation rules are meaningless unless they are enforced.

The danger, Sokolski and dovish arms control advocates agree, is that the message from Iraq and North Korea to other countries, including Iran, is that the way to escape Saddam Hussein's fate is to get a nuclear bomb quickly, before the United States finds out about it.

The administration's approach is based on the premise that time is on the American side. U.S. officials argue that the more North Korea advertises its nuclear capability, the more it isolates itself and alienates its last remaining sympathizers.

"The pro-engagement camp is not sure whether North Korea will change course but is prepared to spend years, if necessary, trying," said a Senate source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "This administration believes that to move quickly is essentially to fall into a North Korean trap and to pay a high [diplomatic] price for something we could essentially negotiate away for a lower price."

China has told the United States it would oppose bringing the North Korean issue to the Security Council, and China is central to the U.S. strategy of pressuring North Korea to disarm. The Chinese foreign minister, on a visit to Washington last week, reiterated Beijing's opposition to economic sanctions.

But Sokolski argues that the U.S. should enforce the international nuclear protocol, even if it means risking a Chinese veto.

"We should agree that the rules do matter, and we shouldn't be afraid to enforce them," he said in an interview. "Sometimes you have to lose before you can win."

Others argue that taking North Korea to the U.N. -- which Pyongyang has said it would consider an act of war -- "puts us that much closer to a crisis, and the Bush administration is doing everything possible to avert a crisis," said L. Gordon Flake, executive director of the Washington-based Mansfield Center for Pacific Affairs. He worries that the isolated and brash Kim Jong Il, North Korea's leader, could easily blunder into a war.

"We're just not ready for a war right now," Flake said. "We can't afford to be precipitous. Yes, there is just cause to go ahead and call North Korea's bluff on this, but to do so would be to go it alone.

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