Worried About Nuclear Weapons? Worry About North Korea

North Korea warns of 'nuclear disasters' around globe if U.S. launches attack on the communist state.

The world watches with bated breath as the standoff between the U.S. and

Iraq unfolds. But thousands of miles away on the Korean peninsula, a crisis

of at least equal significance is quietly growing.

Over the weekend, North Korea warned in its official state newspaper of

"nuclear disasters" around the globe if the U.S. were to launch an attack on

the communist state.

"If the U.S. imperialists ignite a war on the Korean Peninsula, the war will

turn into a nuclear war," the paper said. "As a consequence, the Koreans in

the north and south and the people in Asia and the rest of the world will

suffer horrifying nuclear disasters."

The paper said it was issuing the warning in response to plans hatched at

the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. The paper said the CIA is plotting to

attack the Yongbyon facility where North Korea is believed to be

developing nuclear weapons.

The paper did not elaborate on what plans it was referring to. A report in

The New York Times on Saturday indicated that the White House was

considering a number of options for dealing with the North Korean nuclear

threat, including various economic embargoes. But in public statements

President Bush has carefully avoided ruling out a tactical strike on the

Yongbyon nuclear plant.

The North Korean statement was the latest in a series of moves that are of

increasing concern to those within the diplomatic community. Just last

week, North Korea test launched a missile into the Sea of Japan the day

before South Korea's new president took office. The country also

reactivated a 5-megawatt reactor that could produce plutonium for nuclear

weapons, according to U.S. officials.

Tensions escalated in October when U.S. intelligence revealed that North

Korea had re-started its dormant nuclear weapons development program. In

response, the U.S. and allies cut off fuel assistance to North Korea and

sought to isolate the state from the world community. Not to be

outdone, the North Koreans kicked United Nations weapons inspectors out of

the country, withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and

re-started the Yongbyon reactor.

In testimony before Congress last month, CIA Director George Tenet said the

agency believes North Korea currently has the ability to hit the West Coast of

the United States with a missile. U.S. intelligence officials are deeply

concerned that in the coming weeks, North Korea could decide to reactivate

its nuclear re-processing facility that would allow it to produce plutonium for

use in nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, new details came to light over the weekend about the ongoing

debate within the Bush administration on how to handle North Korea.

Diplomats have argued both publicly and behind closed doors that that U.S.

must engage the renegade nation in direct diplomatic talks, according to a

report in The New York Times.

In testimony before Congress last month, Deputy Secretary of State Richard

L. Armitage said that the U.S. should engage in "a bilateral discussion"

with North Korea. He also praised the agreement the Clinton administration

struck in 1994, under which the North Koreans agreed to forego any further

nuclear bomb development in exchange for economic aid.

One senior White House official said President Bush was "off-the-wall

angry" after hearing of Armitage's remarks, according to the Times. A

short time later, the president instructed Secretary of State Colin Powell that no

member of his staff was to publicly address the idea of direct talks between

Washington and North Korea.

The official White House position is that agreeing to direct talks with

North Korea would be tantamount to succumbing to blackmail. Instead,

Secretary Powell and others have insisted that that Chinese and other Asian

nations should be involved in any negotiations with the rogue state.

The administration's distinctly multilateral approach to the Korean crisis

stands in sharp contrast to the strategy it appears willing to undertake

with Iraq. Though the U.S. has taken its case against Saddam Hussein to the

United Nations, President Bush has made clear that the U.S. will launch

military strikes on Iraq largely on its own, if need be.

Washington and North Korea have long been at odds. A staunchly communist

state, North Korea is one of the few remaining holdouts from the Soviet bloc

era. Relations between North Korea and U.S. ally South Korea have been icy

since the close of the Korean War in 1953. Currently, 37,000 U.S. troops

guard the border between the two nations, prepared to repel any attack from

the North.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is regarded as one of the world's most

despotic dictators. Hundreds of thousands — perhaps over a million — are

believed to have starved to death under his rule. North Korea remains one

of the most isolated states on earth. The U.S. accuses it of trying to develop and export weapons of mass destruction.

The Bush administration's hard-line stance against North Korea may have been

colored by intelligence indicating that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il

could face an internal coup sometime in the near future. But the CIA gathered

that information from a North Korean defector whom the agency no longer

considers credible, according to a report in The Washington Post.

President Bush's policy toward North Korea represents a sharp departure from

the way the state was handled by his predecessor. Former

president Bill Clinton and his Secretary of State Madeleine Albright pushed hard

for improved relations between South Korea and North Korea. With American

encouragement, former South Korean President Kim Dae Jung pursued a

"sunshine policy" to improve relations with his nation's northern rival. In a

previously unprecedented move, Kim visited the North Korean capital of

Pyongyang.

In other signs of goodwill, North and South Korean athletes marched together

at the summer Olympic Games held in Sydney in 2000. There was even talk

that North Korea would host matches at the 2002 World Cup soccer tournament

in South Korea.

But Bush and his foreign policy team are clearly much less trustful of North

Korea and have struck a much more strident tone as a result. Rather than

focus on reconciliation, they have reminded the world of North Korea's

repressive policies toward its people and its efforts to develop weapons of

mass destruction.

—Ethan Zindler

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