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'Guerrilla dynasty,' is it a threat?

Nuclear weapons were not the top concern during Japan-North Korea talks Tuesday, analysts say.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 30, 2002


Weeks after admitting to a secret nuclear program, North Korea – regarded 10 years ago as the No. 1 threat to Asia and the US – is being rated more a diplomatic than a security crisis.

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North Korea does have missile and biological and chemical weapons programs, along with its bid for a "nuclear option" – and all have been significantly improved in the past decade.

Yet more persuasive to many Asian and Western states is a widely held consensus that the isolated North is changing: The North talks of reforming its medieval economy. Its military, once thought capable of holding the US to a standstill in Korea, today can only hold Seoul hostage to a fierce artillery barrage. Even leader Kim, formerly an unknown recluse, is spoken of as a hands-on rational player – logical, not suicidal – whose interest is the survival of his regime: by gradual reforms and by securing a US guarantee not to attack.

In normalization talks with the North in Malaysia Tuesday, Tokyo seemed to give the North's abduction of 12 Japanese a higher priority than the nuclear issue, some Japanese analysts say.

So prevalent is the view that the North is changing and that Kim lacks the food and fuel for a military adventure that experts living near the demilitarized zone are almost apologetic about saying the threat from the North is not over.

A comment made by a North Korean official to US envoy James Kelly earlier this month is echoing in US military circles. "You have 37,000 troops on our border," the North official said, according to a senior US official, "Of course we have a nuclear-weapons program."

An arresting picture

Indeed, a clinical appraisal of the North's threat offers an arresting picture, US intelligence and other experts say. The crude and inaccurate Scud missiles deployed by the North in the early 1990s have given way to 600 accurate "Nodong" missiles with a range of 750 miles. A "confession" by a senior North official published last January speaks of a mountain called Kwanmo-bong that has been hollowed out at night, sandbag by sandbag, for a secret nuclear plant.

North Korea was formed by a military force: the strongest of bickering rebel units that fought the Japanese. Kim Il Sung, Kim's father, created a military nation – a "Guerrilla Dynasty," to use the title of North Korea expert Adrian Buzo's recent book – a main focus of which was to carry out operations in the South. Today, it spends more than half its budget on its Army, and has the largest special operations force on the planet – some 100,000 crack troops.

"What is the most troubling threat by the North? I'd have to say the biological and chemical threat is the major one," says a senior US official whose brief includes the Korean peninsula.

Weapons stockpiles

In the 1990s, North Korea stockpiled an estimated 5,000 tons of chemical and biological agents, US sources say – including VX nerve agent and sarin gas. A South Korean white paper published in 1999 says the North's capability in the biochemical area is "underestimated," and that Pyongyang may have 10 different toxic agents under development.

Speaking last month to the Korean-American Association in Seoul, US Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton argued that the North's bioweapons program is one of the largest in the world.