No crisis in North Korea yet
Washington considers talks Friday with China's leader as crucial to averting a nuclear showdown.
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA
North Korea's admission of a secret nuclear program has forced the Bush administration to rethink its "unilateralist" approach at least in Asia. Yet the patient "go slow" approach the White House is adopting on North Korea which President Bush termed an "axis of evil" state is not due simply to a preoccupation with Iraq.Skip to next paragraph
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Rather, the North Korean question is so sensitive and potentially dangerous, experts say, due to leader Kim Jong Il's assertion early this month that he will nullify an agreement that has kept the Korean peninsula ostensibly nuclear-free for eight years.
Under the "Agreed Framework," as it is known, sealed plutonium fuel rods at the North Korean complex at Yongbyon now are under the eyes and cameras of international inspectors. Those fuel rods could be turned into fissionable material for five nuclear weapons in a matter of months unlike the recently revealed enriched uranium program, which is still two or three years off under the best of circumstances, experts say.
What the Bush administration and regional leaders are anxious about is whether Kim Jong Il actually intends to scotch the Agreed Framework by kicking out the Yongbyon verification team, or whether he will be satisfied to let his announcement of "nullification" stand as a kind of warning threat that leads to negotiations.
"Right now, it is still business as usual. We have not yet seen efforts to expel or restrain [inspectors'] activities," says a senior US official in Asia.
Yet "if Kim should close out the inspectors," says Scott Snyder of the Asia Foundation in Seoul, "that would be an escalatory step. That's why everyone is being very cautious. Right now this is a problem, not a crisis."
In an effort to manage that problem, the White House last week allowed the delivery of heavy oil to North Korea as part of the Agreed Framework.
Agreements on nuclear issues are considered the core of any trust and stability on the Peninsula, and meetings Friday in Texas with Chinese President Jiang Zemin and over the next few days with Japan and South Korea are seen as crucial for the White House. The Bush team must rely heavily on these Asian states to create a pathway out of the dilemma.
The White House itself is hampered by internal disagreements, with some officials feeling that Kim should be further isolated, and others backing negotiations.
"We hope to give the North some time to decide whether it miscalculated," says a senior administration official. "What we will not do is simply bend to Pyongyang. Kim wants money, prestige, and a deeper dialogue with the US. He can have that. We aren't talking about destroying the North or 'regime change.' But this is not the way to do it. You won't see George Bush going to Pyongyang, the way Bill Clinton nearly did."
In recent months, North Korea has renewed dialogue with the South, and has moved dramatically to normalize relations with Japan. Both Japan and South Korea feel that Kim is jockeying for desperately needed cash. Together with China, they are so adamantly opposed to any military solution that the US is not considering it. But the revelation of Pyongyang's secret program has divided opinion further in those countries over how to deal with Kim.