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A nuclear N. Korea: What now?

US officials give details of a confrontational meeting earlier this month over N. Korea's weapons program.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 18, 2002


North Korea failed a US sincerity test.

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US officials say they went to North Korea earlier this month carrying evidence of a secret nuclear-weapons program run by Pyongyang. Their goal: to probe whether President Kim Jung Il's recent talk of reform and opening up to the world was real, according to senior Bush administration officials.

Instead, they were met with belligerence. When confronted with the evidence of an enriched-uranium program – in violation of a 1994 agreement – North Korean officials took a confrontational attitude, and tried to "intimidate us," one official says, speaking off the record.

The administration's plan to test the regime, an official says, came after last month's summit between Japan and North Korea, when President Kim stunned the world by apologizing for the kidnapping of 13 Japanese citizens in the 1970s.

"[Japanese Prime Minister] Koizumi opened the door," the official says, "after Kim apologized to him, and after months of signaling change and reform in Pyongyang, we said, 'If the opening with Koizumi is real, if he wants to reform, we want to give him the chance to acknowledge that he has a weapons program."

Kim acknowledged the weapons program but not willingly. "The North was very belligerent. They wanted to scare us. The main thing for us now is not to overreact," says the US official.

The sudden acknowledgment by the White House Wednesday that the Stalinist North has been developing weapons of mass destruction marks a kind of turning point in North Asia. But in which direction?

Some analysts argue that, even if North Korea was forced by US officials to admit to a secret program, the North now hopes to turn its veracity to an advantage. The North is reportedly anxious to move itself further away from the "axis of evil" status bestowed on it by the Bush administration.

Media reports in South Korea suggest that since Oct. 3, when US Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly visited Pyongyang, North Korean officials have approached the White House with a comprehensive set of proposals for talks, including pulling back the North's massive conventional forces located along the demilitarized zone with South Korea, abandoning its nuclear weapons program, and engaging in economic reform.

When Kim admitted that North Korea had kidnapped Japanese citizens to train its spies in Japanese language and culture, that involved a loss of face by the Korean leader. But it also helped open the door to perhaps as much as $40 million in Japanese aid to the North.

"I think there is a high likelihood that North Korea has no money, no energy, and cannot afford to continue its research program into enriched uranium weapons," says Xing Rui, a research fellow at Tsinghua University in Beijing. "What the North wants now is negotiations with the US. That's what this is about."

Since 1994, the US and North have operated under an accord known as the "Agreed Framework." The treaty was negotiated under the Clinton administration and it required Pyongyang to stop using a graphite nuclear reactor that produced plutonium refined enough to make weapons.