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Time Asia March 17, 2003

Thin Red Line

The North Korean nuclear crisis is heading into uncharted terrain. What's the U.S. plan?

By Jim Erickson

The dysfunctional exchanges in the North Korean nuclear crisis are starting to become as predictable as dialogue in a cold war-era Hollywood thriller. Every week, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il turns up the heat on the U.S. with a carefully choreographed provocation or two-last week's spy-plane intercept was followed by an announcement of another surface-to-surface-missile test. The U.S. in turn issues a warning that Kim had better not try anything really crazy, or else. And every week the world holds its breath, wondering if this time Kim has tugged on the superpower's cape a little too hard-and whether "or else" means a U.S. attack on Pyongyang's nuclear facilities that could explode into an all-out war on the Korean peninsula.

The absence of clear lines in the sand adds to the perilous atmosphere. In Washington's diplomatic circles, these trip wires are known as "red lines": actions so belligerent that they demand a drastic response. Since the Iraq-obsessed Administration of President George W. Bush has not publicly drawn any red lines, all anyone knows for sure is that North Korea has not crossed one yet. Not that Kim didn't lunge blindly into the danger zone again last week when he sent four jet fighters to tail a U.S. spy plane over the Sea of Japan. During the 20-minute encounter 240 kilometers from the North Korean coast, a MiG-29 flew within 15 meters of the slower RC-135S reconnaissance jet, a modified Boeing 707. U.S. officials now claim that North Korea wanted to take the aircraft and its crew hostage.

It was the most serious midair incident between the two countries since 1969, when North Korea shot down a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft, killing 31 airmen. Bush responded by telling reporters that efforts for a peaceful resolution of the crisis were continuing. But "if they don't work diplomatically," he said, "they'll have to work militarily." Just in case, the U.S. deployed 24 bombers to a U.S. air base in Guam, within range of the North. "We want them to get the message that we have (in Asia) more than our usual mix of forces to deter and defend," even while most U.S. forces are engaged in Iraq, says Pentagon spokesman Lieut. Commander Jeff Davis.

Hounding a U.S. spy plane is just one item Pyongyang can pull from its Pandora's box of menacing behavior as it continues to pressure the U.S. for bilateral talks. Analysts expect the North will soon test-fire one of its ballistic missiles capable of hitting Japan. Another possible provocation: an underground nuclear test, which would eliminate all doubt about whether Kim has acquired nukes.

Kim wants aid and a promise from the Bush Administration that he will not become a prime target once Saddam Hussein is out of the way. But so long as no U.S. troops are killed or international borders violated, Bush will not act, observers say, because he's painted himself into a diplomatic corner. The U.S. vows it will never hold direct one-on-one talks with the North unless Kim first promises to abandon nuclear-weapons development. Anything short of that, the Bush Administration has declared, would be giving in to "blackmail." And punishing Kim with international sanctions isn't currently an option. Despite Secretary of State Colin Powell's best arm-twisting, North Korea's neighbors and biggest donors-China and South Korea-are unwilling to cut off aid. They fear sanctions could cause either Kim to lash out militarily or his regime to collapse, which would mean refugees streaming over their borders.

For now, the Bush Administration's policy seems to be no policy. "The U.S. doesn't want to draw any red line, because the first thing North Korea will do is look at it, inspect it and cross it," says Victor Cha, a Korea expert and professor at Georgetown Uni-versity. America would have to respond, potentially setting off a chain of events leading to war. "The Bush Administration seems pretty determined to sit this one out," says Peter Scoblic, an arms-control expert at the New America Foundation in Washington.

But strategic neglect might not work forever. North Korea might already have one or two atom bombs in its arsenal, according to the CIA. If an existing plutonium-reprocessing facility located at Yongbyon is restarted, the country could soon begin churning out enough weapons-grade plutonium to produce about half a dozen bombs a year; that material could also be sold to terrorists and states hostile to the U.S. "The closest thing I can see to something that would constitute a red line for the Bush Administration is if North Korea started shipping fissile material abroad," Scoblic says.

If the trip wire is restarting the reprocessing plant, how will the U.S. react? In 1994, the last time North Korea was threatening to go nuclear, the Clinton Administra-tion had a plan to knock out the facility with precision air strikes designed to minimize the danger of radioactive clouds wafting over neighboring countries. "The target hasn't changed," says Walter Slocombe, undersecretary of defense under Clinton. "We had the capability then, and I can't believe we don't have it now."

The problem, says Slocombe, is "we're faced with some pretty terrible options militarily." A preemptive strike would almost certainly cause Kim to unleash a full-scale attack on Seoul. The U.S. military believes it has a blueprint-called Operational Plan 5027-for a quick victory if war broke out. Among OPLAN 5027's dictates: Lightning air strikes to wipe out artillery and biological- and chemical-weapons sites. One projection says deadly accurate "counterbattery fire" could silence the North's big guns along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) within an hour-reducing civilian casualties far below current estimates of a million dead in Seoul. "It is a war they have been planning to fight and win for the past half century," says John Pike, director of Washington-based think tank Globalsecurity.org. "It may be unthinkable in some political circles, but it is very plausible to the U.S. military."

But war-or a move that could lead to war-is unthinkable to America's ally South Korea, which is demanding the U.S. consult with it before pursuing a military option. Just last week, South Korean lawmakers expressed alarm that the U.S. had failed to inform the Roh administration that it was studying ways to move 37,000 U.S. troops away from the DMZ-or to withdraw them from South Korea entirely. South Korean Prime Minister Goh Kun told the U.S. ambassador: "It's inappropriate to talk about this at such a critical moment."

Unless South Korea and the U.S. arrive at a mutual strategy, Kim will continue to exploit the diplomatic divide. "There aren't many cars on this logic train," says Scoblic. "One, you talk bilaterally. Two, you attack. Three, you do nothing." Bush has chosen the third option. How long can he stick by that decision?

-Reported by Perry Bacon Jr./Washington, Susan Jakes/Beijing, Donald Macintyre/Seoul

Copyright 2003, Time Inc.