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Sunday, May 4, 2003

Avoid hasty reaction to a probable bluff

LONDON -- "They don't negotiate like we do," explained Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and one of the North Korean regime's few channels of communication with the United States, after meeting with Pyongyang's representative in January. "They believe that to get something, they have to step up the rhetoric, be more belligerent."

They have certainly stepped up the rhetoric now. At a meeting between North Korean and U.S. diplomats in Beijing on April 24, North Korean delegate Li Gun told U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly that Pyongyang already has nuclear weapons, and has almost finished reprocessing 8,000 spent fuel rods from its reactor at Yongbyon, which would give it enough fissile material for half a dozen more.

Not only does North Korea have nuclear weapons, but it is prepared to test them or pass them on to other countries, or maybe even to terrorists, if Washington does not end the crisis on Pyongyang's terms. "We can't dismantle them," Li told Kelly. "It's up to you whether we do a physical demonstration or transfer them." President George W. Bush immediately accused North Korea of "blackmail" -- but what can he do about it?

Iraq was easy because its army had never been rebuilt after the catastrophic defeat of 1991, because Kuwait was willing to let the U.S. use its territory as a launching pad for the invasion and, above all, because Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. The accusations about Iraqi WMD were needed to provide a legal pretext for the attack and persuade the U.S. public that it was necessary, but Bush must have known that they probably didn't exist, for that was what his own intelligence services were telling him, particularly regarding any Iraqi nuclear capacity.

North Korea, by contrast, has the world's third-biggest army and consists mostly of mountains, not flat desert. There are U.S. bases in South Korea, but it is most unlikely that South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun would let the U.S. launch a war from there that could devastate the whole Korean Peninsula. And North Korea is now openly saying it has nuclear weapons, and what does the U.S. plan to do about it?

The first thing the U.S. must do is figure out what is going on under the bouffant hairdo of North Korea's diminutive "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il. Why did he have his diplomats tell Kelly last October that North Korea had a nuclear weapons program and, now, that it has actual nukes?

There is little doubt that Kim was cheating on the 1994 Agreed Framework deal that ended the last crisis over North Korean nuclear weapons. He shut down the plutonium-fueled reactor at Yongbyon at that time in return for free shipments of oil and a promise by the U.S., South Korea and Japan to build two new pressurized-water reactors that would not produce much in the way of weapons-grade material. He even admitted inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to check that the Yongbyon reactor stayed shut. Yet, simultaneously, he started up a secret uranium-enrichment program (which does not need a reactor to produce fissile material).

By 1998 Washington's suspicions were growing, but President Bill Clinton's administration did not panic because nobody thought the program was anywhere near a success. The panic began 15 months ago when Bush included North Korea in his "axis of evil" hit list; it was a panic in Pyongyang, not Washington.

Kim thought he had a deal with the U.S. (even though he was cheating on it, and the U.S. wasn't moving very fast on building the promised reactors either). Suddenly, reading the intelligence reports and news briefs over breakfast one morning, he discovers that the world's greatest power has decided to destroy his regime. Of course he panics.

We know from ex-White House speech-writer David Frum's tell-all account that North Korea ended up in the axis of evil almost by accident: There were two Muslim countries, Iraq and Iran, on the list already, and a non-Muslim country was needed for "balance." But in Pyongyang it sounded like a death sentence.

When it became clear last autumn that the U.S. was going to execute the sentence on Iraq, North Korea went into overdrive. It then deliberately revealed its secret uranium-enrichment program to Washington.

Since then it has expelled the IAEA inspectors, withdrawn from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, restarted up the Yongbyon reactor and now claims to have nuclear weapons. Should we believe it? Probably not.

So far as U.S. intelligence knows, North Korea's attempts to import high-grade aluminum tubing have been thwarted, and without them the expensive and technically demanding uranium-enrichment route is unlikely to have led to the production of any nuclear weapons yet. Although Yongbyon has just been restarted, satellite surveillance shows no sign that North Korea has begun reprocessing those 8,000 fuel rods as Li claims. The probability is high that the whole thing is a bluff driven by North Korea's fear that it faces a U.S. attack.

So what should the U.S. do? Nothing hasty. Both sides have played this very badly, but it remains a problem that can be sorted out by diplomacy.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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