North Korea Digs In Its Heels On Nuclear-Development Issue

Pyongyang's vow to restart program may be bluster, but could prompt economic sanctions

THE international standoff over North Korea's nuclear weapons program escalated again yesterday as the North vowed to resume its nuclear development effort.

``Since the United States has opted ... to put pressure on us, reversing all its commitments with us, we could not but normalize our peaceful nuclear activities,'' said a statement by North Korea's Foreign Ministry, reported here by the official Korean Central News Agency. The government in Pyongyang says it ``froze'' its nuclear program this summer at the outset of bilateral talks between the US and North Korea.

Although this confrontation has been marked by diplomatic bluster, the decision could mean North Korea may carry out a year-old threat to withdraw from an international treaty designed to halt the spread of nuclear arms. The announcement also is likely to spur further action on US-led economic sanctions, a step the country has said would be tantamount to a declaration of war. China is expected to send a delegation to the North this month to help defuse the crisis, the South's Yonhap News Agency reports.

Even without nuclear arms, and despite a crumbling economy, the North poses a considerable military threat to South Korea. The United States maintains a force of some 37,000 soldiers on the border. US Defense Secretary William Perry did little to calm the situation Sunday, saying on TV the US believes the North may have already built two nuclear bombs and confirming a Washington Post report that it recently has enlarged its production capacity for weapons-grade plutonium. He insisted the world was not on the brink of a crisis over the North's nuclear ambitions, but said the US would pursue ``imaginative and aggressive diplomatic actions'' to stop Pyongyang from building nuclear bombs.

A year ago, amid mounting international concern over its nuclear program, the North said it was withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That announcement led to two rounds of talks with the US, which ended with promises by the North that it would allow comprehensive inspections of its nuclear sites.

But last month, North Korean officials prevented inspectors from reviewing certain areas and taking samples of nuclear material that would have determined whether the North was making weapons-grade material from the byproducts of nuclear energy production.

The inspecting authority, the International Atomic Energy Agency, referred the matter to the United Nations Security Council. Although the US led an effort to have the Security Council pass a tough resolution that would have ordered Pyongyang to permit a full inspection or face punitive actions such as economic sanctions, the Council settled on simply asking Pyongyang to comply with the IAEA. China, North Korea's major ally, was instrumental in softening the Security Council's stance.

But the UN's action did not strike the North Koreans as an instance of moderation. Yesterday's statement called the UN's request ``unreasonable'' and said the North had allowed adequate inspections of its facilities. Any dispute in that regard, the statement says, should have been handled between the IAEA and North Korea.

Instead, the statement asserts, the US forced the issue before the Security Council. The statement accuses the Security Council of ``playing into the hands of the United States in executing the latter's hostile policy of stifling'' North Korea.

Oddly enough, an unofficial spokesman for North Korea in Tokyo says Pyongyang's aim is to improve ties to Washington. ``The ultimate goal is to normalize relations with the US first, because the US has played a key role on the Korean peninsula,'' says Choe Ik Kwan of the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan.

Mr. Choe says that once relations with the US are in place, links to Japan and South Korea could be established. He adds that a third round of bilateral talks between Washington and Pyongyang could resolve the nuclear issue, but yesterday's statement omitted calls for further talks. He repeated the North Korean denials that a nuclear weapons program is under way, but acknowledged with a laugh that the allegation of such a program has proved a useful bargaining chip.

Masao Okonogi, an expert on the Koreas at Tokyo's Keio University, says the North, and particularly the regime in control, is bargaining for its life. ``Survival is the goal, and the nuclear bomb is the means,'' Professor Okonogi says.

North Korea wants to trade the cessation of their nuclear program for funding and investment that would accompany ties with the US, Japan, and North Korea, he says. Cut off from the world since the end of the cold war, he notes, the North needs resources for economic reconstruction.

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