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The Associated Press March 6, 2003

North Korea likely to further raise tension in nuclear dispute

By Christopher Torchia; Associated Press Writer

North Korea's increasingly bold military maneuvers in recent weeks have heightened fears of an armed clash, whether by design or accident, amid tension over its suspected efforts to develop nuclear weapons.

U.S. and South Korean authorities also worry that North Korea is preparing to take the most serious step yet in its efforts to push Washington into dialogue: the reactivation of a nuclear reprocessing facility that could enable the production of bombs within months.

A North Korean decision to restart the plant that extracts weapons-grade plutonium from spent fuel rods would fit a pattern of raising tension in an attempt to win concessions from its No. 1 enemy. To counter North Korea, Washington ordered heavy bombers to Guam in what it called a defensive measure.

"There is a kind of tit-for-tat pattern that's getting nasty here, but is still somewhat restrained," said Leon Sigal, a security analyst at the Social Science Research Council in New York City.

Many analysts believe North Korea is speeding up its so-called brinkmanship strategy because of U.S. plans for war against Iraq, possibly this month. According to this theory, the North Koreans believe Washington is more likely to compromise now to avoid a second crisis in Northeast Asia, but would be tougher on North Korea if it conducts a successful campaign against Saddam Hussein.

"They're doing everything they possibly can to get the attention of the U.S. military," said Patrick Garrett, an analyst at GlobalSecurity.org, an Alexandria, Va.-based research center.

"This is part of the larger effort to ratchet this crisis up to the point where the U.S. will decide to sit down and have a discussion with them," he said.

President George W. Bush's administration has chosen not to negotiate with North Korea, saying it will not be bullied into giving the communist country what it wants: a nonaggression treaty and economic aid. The strategy has been criticized by leading U.S. Democrats who say direct talks offer the only chance of defusing the nuclear crisis.

Northern actions in the past two weeks include:

    - The dispatch of a MiG-19 warplane across the South's western sea border. The plane quickly retreated after South Korean jets flew to the area.
    - The test-firing of an anti-ship missile on the eve of the inauguration of South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun.
    - The reactivation of a 5-megawatt nuclear reactor that is part of a suspected weapons program.
    - The interception by MiG-29 warplanes of a U.S. reconnaissance plane in international airspace off North Korea's east coast.

North Korea's next step might be to switch on the reprocessing plant at the Yongbyon nuclear complex north of Pyongyang, a possible prelude to the manufacture of several nuclear weapons by this summer. That would involve the transfer of 8,000 spent fuel rods in stainless steel canisters from a cooling pond to the plant.

All the North Korean actions appear to have been carefully planned, but the possibility of an isolated confrontation seems higher than it has been in years.

"What worries me the most is the possibility of miscalculation and accidental outbreak of hostilities on the account of escalating nuclear tensions," Alexandre Mansourov, a Northeast Asian security expert, said in a commentary released by the Nautilus Institute, a Berkeley, California-based research group.

Sigal, the analyst in New York, said the start this week of an annual U.S.-South Korean military exercise called "Foal Eagle" has heightened tension with North Korea. Communist forces are also engaging in winter training.

"We're at a point in which the propaganda in the North is pretty high-pitched, which means the armed forces are hyper-vigilant, hyper-attentive," Sigal said.

"On our side, I assume people are being hyper-careful," he said. "But things happen. Armed reconnaissance happens in the DMZ, Apache helicopters do stray, certain intelligence operations do possibly penetrate real air space."

In 1994, a U.S. Army helicopter was shot down after straying into North Korean airspace during a training mission near the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, that separates South and North Korea. One pilot was killed, and the other was captured and released two weeks later.

The DMZ was once the scene of frequent infiltrations and armed clashes, but such incidents have dwindled in recent years. Even if a clash occurs, the possibility that it would lead to full-scale war is doubtful, partly because the Koreas realize a conflict would devastate both sides.

The difference now is that North Korea could soon manufacture nuclear weapons, a concern in a 1994 crisis that led former President Bill Clinton to consider bombing the Yongbyon complex. U.S. officials believe the North already has one or two atomic bombs.

Bush has said he seeks a diplomatic solution to the nuclear dilemma, but has not ruled out the military option.


Copyright 2003, The Associated Press