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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

Newsday (New York) March 6, 2003

Hard Choices On N. Korea

By Ken Fireman.
Anne Q. Hoy contributed to this story.

Washington - The Bush administration is facing an unpalatable menu of options - and mounting complaints about its policy from foreign allies and domestic critics - as it struggles to contain North Korea's burgeoning nuclear ambitions amid preparations for a possible war in Iraq.

Administration officials yesterday reiterated their approach of seeking to exert diplomatic pressure on North Korea to curb its nuclear programs while ruling out direct talks with its leaders.

They described the decision to bolster U.S. forces in Asia by deploying 24 long-range bombers to Guam as a deterrent aimed at dissuading North Korea from new provocations, such as the weekend incident in which four fighter jets closed to within 50 feet of a U.S. spy plane in international airspace.

"North Korea would like nothing more than to make this a crisis, because the more they can make this a crisis, the more they think they will get things in return for defusing the crisis that they themselves have spun up," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.

Fleischer denied that the administration had resigned itself to the likelihood North Korea would begin reprocessing plutonium from a recently restarted reactor at Yongbyon into bomb-grade material. Analysts believe such a move would allow Pyongyang to produce several nuclear weapons in a matter of months.

He said President George W. Bush remained confident China and Russia would meet U.S. requests and pressure the North Koreans to retreat. "Much is on the line for China and Russia in what North Korea does," he said. "They do not want to see a nuclear-armed North Korea. It is not in their interest."

But Bush's approach is drawing mounting criticism from multiple sources: foreign policy analysts with expertise in the region, Clinton administration officials who grappled with the problem, Democratic senators - and the new president of longtime U.S. ally South Korea, Roh Moo-hyun.

Roh, who was elected in December on a platform of seeking engagement with the North, told the Times of London that Bush should speak directly with Pyongyang and seek to ease tensions. "I am urging the U.S. not to go too far," he was quoted as saying Tuesday.

Three top Clinton administration officials - Defense Secretary William Perry, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger - also called for direct talks yesterday, saying that was the only way to determine whether Pyongyang is truly bent on becoming a nuclear power or is using its nuclear program as a bargaining chip to wring additional aid from Washington. "We cannot wait this out," Perry said.

They were joined by the ranking Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees, Joseph Biden (D-Del.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.). "Quite frankly, we have no policy now," Biden said. "I would not call it benign neglect. I'd call it malign neglect."

One former Republican foreign policy official said Bush faces three inherently unsavory options. The first, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, is a preemptive military strike to destroy the Yongbyon reactor, a move that could trigger bloody North Korean retaliation.

"It was always clear ... that the military options are profoundly unattractive," said Perry, who headed the Pentagon during the final months of a 1993-94 crisis over the same reactor that brought the United States to the brink of military action against North Korea.

Bush seemed to raise the possibility of a preemptive strike in an interview with journalists Monday. Referring to efforts to dissuade Pyongyang, he said, "If they don't work diplomatically, they'll have to work militarily." White House officials later said Bush's words merely restated administration policy, which is that nothing has been ruled out.

The second option, the former official said, is acquiescence in North Korea's becoming a nuclear power. Such a development not only would unhinge the security structure of northeast Asia, but also raise the unsettling possibility of Pyongyang providing bomb-grade material to anyone who meets its price.

And the third, said the official, is direct talks, an option that would collide head-on with Bush's determination not to reward North Korea for misbehavior but might avoid an even more wrenching dilemma in the future.

"It would be the single greatest failure of U.S. policy if [National Security Adviser] Condi Rice goes to the president in a few months and says there are only two options: preemption and acquiescence," the official said.

Anne Q. Hoy contributed to this story.

Bolstering Asian Deployment - The United States has sent 24 B-1 and B-52 bombers to Guam to deter possible North Korean aggression. A look at U.S. and North Korean deployment in the region

U. S. Forces

Army 40,000
Air Force 1,600
Navy 1,850

South Korea
Army 27,000
Air Force 8,300
Navy 345

USS Kitty Hawk

North Korea's forces
Army 950,000
Reserves 600,000
Air Force 86,000
Navy 46,000
Reserves 65,000

Maximum level speed:
952 mph
Maximum range without refueling:
7,455 miles

Maximum level speed:
650 mph
Maximum range without refueling:
8,800 miles

SOURCES: Global Security Organization, Military Balance 2002

GRAPHIC: KRT Graphic / Newsday - Bolstering Asian Deployment (see end of text).

Copyright 2003, Newsday, Inc.