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
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
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